Autumn 2009. A dinner party in western Paris. Roman Polanski has just been arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977, and there's a separate controversy over culture minister Frederic Mitterrand, who has written about his experiences as a sex tourist in Thailand. The guests are outraged. Not because of the sexual abuse, but because of the philistines who want to bring down two great men over a matter of private mores. Surely sexual freedom is as French as the red wine in our glasses and the foie gras on our plates.
Philistine that I am, I point out that Mitterrand's behaviour isn't exactly a private matter since the sex trade is a form of human exploitation. Just to add a bit of factual evidence to the discussion, I talk about a feature I once wrote about Nigerian prostitutes in Italy, and the harrowing stories the women told me about their work. When I'm done, the French bohemian next to me thoughtfully cradles his wine glass.
"Bien sur, prostitution is exploitation," he says. "But you know what, working in a factory, that's also exploitation!"
I'm in London this week and can't report live from a French dinner table, but reading Bernard-Henri Levy's column about his friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest is almost as good. "No one knows" if DSK is guilty of sexual assault, Levy says quite rightly, and he could have left it there. But that wouldn't be quite spicy and controversial enough, so he swiftly adds that the accuser shouldn't have cleaned the room alone, and that another woman who has accused the IMF head of sexual aggression merely "pretends to have been the victim."
And also, poor Greece is going to collapse now, and all because of a chambermaid who shouldn't have cleaned the room alone in the first place.
Because, you know, bien sur, slandering a woman who says she has been sexually assaulted is a form of exploitation*.
But working in the factory of international finance while being distracted by an irritating court case, that's also exploitation.
*Speaking of which: the New York times just reported that DSK's defence lawyers have hired Guidepost Solutions, a global investigations company led by a former federal prosecutor and US Secret Service special agent, to look into the chambermaid's background. There goes her chance of ever having a normal life again, whatever the outcome of the case. Does this happen with any other form of crime? If someone were to burgle my flat, would the defence team hire an investigator to look into my background? "A childhood friend who knew S.H. from 1992-93 reported that she had a history of leaving the front door unlocked." Clearly, she was asking for it!