Cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Sometimes, it doesn’t even take a small group; one immigrant hotel housekeeper can spark a revolution if there is enough pent up anger over wealth inequality.
The alleged sex crimes of the political elite in France are now flowing faster than Perrier at Verg?ze. And the criminal nature of the alleged sex crime du jour is triggering a global debate on the misuse of privacy laws in France to effectively provide impunity to powerful men.
The public debate was sparked by the May 15 arrest in New York City of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sex crimes against a female housekeeper in a $3,000 a night suite at the Sofitel Hotel in midtown Manhattan. At the time, Strauss-Kahn was Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and a contender to be the next President of France. (He has since resigned from the IMF.) The female hotel worker, a member of the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council union, who has been repeatedly referred to as a “chambermaid” in press reports both here and abroad, is a 32-year old single mother from Guinea who has been in the U.S. seven years. (The woman’s job title at the Sofitel Hotel is “room attendant.” Her union uses the job title “housekeeping” on its web site. Put “chambermaid” into the Google search engine and you’ll see stereotypical images of scantily clad French maids and titillating maid costumes for sale. Protest signs in France have excoriated l’Homme des Cavernes, the Caveman.
Equally out of date is mainstream media’s use of the job title “chambermaid.”)
Mr. Strauss-Kahn was arraigned on June 6, pleading not guilty in New York Supreme Court in Manhattan. He had been indicted on seven counts on May 19 following the convening of a grand jury. If convicted of a criminal sexual act in the first degree, a class B violent felony, he could face 25 years in prison.
Initially, French commentators were consumed with how U.S. media was handling the coverage, including newspaper photos showing this powerful man in handcuffs. France had amended its 130-year old freedom of the press law in 2000 to prohibit the publication or broadcast of images showing the criminally accused in handcuffs or physically restrained prior to sentencing. There is also Article 9 of the French Civil Code that asserts that “everyone has the right to privacy” which has been broadly interpreted by the French press to mean politicians’ private lives are off limits, even when the conduct involves criminality.
Now, there is a growing debate in France as to whether privacy laws have been perverted by the press; in some cases to maintain a good relationship with sources; in other cases out of fear of retaliation by the rich and powerful. A 31-year old French journalist, Tristane Banon, is now alleging that she was sexually assaulted by Strauss-Kahn in 2002 while attempting to interview him. At the time, her mother cautioned her against reporting the crime for fear it would end her journalism career. No doubt, others have had similar fears when covering the political elite.
Just days after the indictment of Strauss-Kahn, Georges Tron, a junior minister in French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party, stepped down after two former secretaries accused him of sexual attacks following the pretext of a foot massage. One of the women coming forward told the Le Parisien newspaper: “When I see that a little chambermaid is capable of taking on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I tell myself I do not have the right to stay silent.” Mr. Tron has denied the allegations.
The French confessional parade continued a few days later with Luc Ferry, a former education minister, telling a television audience that he was aware of another (unnamed) ex-minister caught having “group sex with little boys” in Morocco. Mr. Ferry said he had been “informed about the affair by France’s highest authorities, including by the prime minister.” Human rights activists are filing a formal complaint and the French prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation.
At least one French journalist, Nicolas Demorand, is conceding that the press has been cowered into silence. Writing in Lib?ration, Mr. Demorand notes: “Finished are the behind-the-scenes pressuring, the covering up, and the silence: from now on, complaints will be registered and taken seriously.”
But any U.S. backslapping of a highly superior system here of “equal justice under law” (as inscribed on the U.S. Supreme Court building) would be factually untenable. The only place equal justice under law is carved in stone in America is on the exterior of that building. The decisions being handed down inside tell a woefully different tale. Just ask the inmates at Guantanamo or female workers on Wall Street.
For more than three decades, the U.S. has tolerated sexual assaults and egregious harassment against female workers on Wall Street while allowing those cases to be shrouded from public view in private justice systems run by the industry itself.
When I and colleagues blew the whistle on Wall Street in 1996, the U.S. press did its job most admirably, giving wings for over five years to the public debate on the appropriateness of private justice in a democracy. One journalist, Susan Antilla, had the courage to fend off legal threats and write an award-winning book on the matter for Bloomberg Publishing (“Tales from the Boom Boom Room”) dedicating a full chapter to “attacking the no-court system.” In her acknowledgements, Ms. Antilla credited her mother as a source of inspiration: “She also taught by example that a person’s social and economic standing should have no bearing on the decency with which they are treated?.”
Just as now, the floodgates opened then because women felt they might be taken seriously. But instead of the claims being ushered into the vaunted U.S. court system, where sunshine and continued public debate might have led to real change, Wall Street and its politically connected law firms with a revolving door in Washington made certain that all the women got was more “hotel justice.” Instead of the Federal Court in Manhattan, claims were heard in secret in hotel rooms, the typical venue for the mushrooming use of private arbitration in the U.S. today.
Judith Mione, a veteran Wall Street woman who protested this perversion of justice and joined with me in calling it out as a fraud, died on April 19 of cancer and a broken heart. She understood that those noble words on the U.S. Supreme Court building were written for the Strauss-Kahns of the world — not the Judith Miones.
Mandatory arbitration is another cog in the wealth transfer system which allows l’Homme des Cavernes to defy extinction and continue to abuse us all in myriad ways. (See “Judicial Apartheid,” CounterPunch, July 20,2009)
Perhaps anticipating a similar sorry ending for this hotel worker pitted against the wealth and political clout of Strauss-Kahn, an international group of female activists from over 40 countries have penned a petition demanding “Let Justice Be Done.” (Strauss-Kahn has engaged an expensive cadre of spooks, spies, and private eyes, including two former Enron execs, ostensibly to dig for dirt on the low-wage worker. ) The petition can be signed at this link.
Maybe that “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” is emerging after all. In addition to the petition above, Norman Siegel, a respected civil rights scholar who headed the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) from 1985 to 2000, has joined the woman’s legal team. And union hotel workers were out in force outside the courthouse at Strauss-Kahn’s arraignment, serenading the haughty millionaire, who allegedly bragged to his target “do you know who I am,” with jeers of “shame on you.”
Pam Martens worked on Wall Street for 21 years. She has no security position, long or short, in any company mentioned in this article. She has been writing on public interest issues for CounterPunch since 2006. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org