The story of the culture of white Frenchmen and African women — métissage (French mulatto) — is old but complex, one that goes back to at least the 17th century, when France was a major slave-trading nation with sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Louisiana. King Louis XIV passed a decree in 1685 bringing into force the Code Noir, the clauses of which defined the conditions of slavery in the French colonial empire, restricting the activities of free Negroes and laying out how relations between slave owners and their slave concubines should proceed, especially their offspring. Louisiana adopted the code in 1724, where it remained in force until the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
There is a reason that the rooster is a national symbol of France. After DSK’s arrest and photographed “perp walk,” we witnessed little Napoleonic men in France strutting about in a state of incandescent fury over what had happened in New York. This demonstration of a man — considered invincible — brought low by a poor African woman, who stood before the law as an equal in Manhattan, was something new for Frenchmen of the upper political class, who are nearly untouchable at home.
A sense of France’s destiny being altered by an African woman — une femme de ménage (a cleaning woman) at that — from Guinea, a former French colony that rejected any future ties with France at independence in 1958, was nothing short of shocking. It was beyond their comprehension that this could be happening. In this scenario, DSK is the victim, not Diallo, especially after his stay on Rikers Island.
Despite the support that African colonies gave Gen. Charles de Gaulle during World War II, the dirty little secret here is that most Africans are still held in very low esteem by many older Frenchmen. They are not taken seriously as human beings, seen as people only good for soccer, music and nubile women, after whom many Frenchmen famously lust. A male journalist on French television blithely dismissed the whole DSK affair as un troussage de domestique, suggesting that the master has the right to throw up the skirts of one of his female servants at will.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a product of this culture, this mindset. And the list of women upon which he has preyed is legion, from M. Marie-Victorine, a Congolese-born French socialist who attempted suicide when DSK broke off their nine-month affair, to Anne Mansouret, the Socialist Party official whose consensual encounter with DSK she has described as “clearly brutal.” Her daughter, author Tristane Banon, has charges pending against DSK in a French court over allegations of an attempted sexual assault dating back to 2002.
Back on America’s shores, Vance and his attorneys apparently decided that if they couldn’t win the case, why proceed to trial? The witness was unreliable, they reasoned, so her testimony would not hold up. But even in France, people want to know why DSK’s sperm was on Diallo’s housekeeping uniform when she left the suite.
Vance, in his establishment mindset, saw only the letter of the law and not the cultural dimension of the case.
Was Diallo coerced into doing whatever she did out of fear of losing her job if she didn’t submit to a powerful man who could destroy her economically? Consensual sex by coercion may not be illegal, but it is immoral. Did Vance pass up an opportunity to break new ground legally by not looking at how a woman could have felt as threatened economically by DSK as she would have if he were holding a gun to her head? We will never know.
The real moral of this story is that money and expensive lawyering continue to prevail when the powerful prey on the weak. And an African woman is particularly vulnerable in this situation, if for no other reason than she is a long way from home. At least the French owners of the Sofitel Hotel, who have continued to pay her salary, told Nafissatou Diallo that she can return to work when she’s ready. Small justice, indeed.
Leroy Woodson Jr. is an African-American journalist living in Paris whose observations stem from many years of exposure to French and Parisian culture.