Jay McInerney: The rich and powerful in handcuffs: one of the great sights of New York

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The timing was weird. I'd just returned to New York from Paris, where I'd heard a fair amount of discussion in Montparnasse and elsewhere about the next elections, and about the likelihood that someone named Dominique Strauss-Kahn would be the Socialist candidate, and quite possibly the next president. And here he was in my town, being paraded in handcuffs in front of the cameras.

The image apparently inspired a fair amount of indignation, and even outrage, in certain quarters in Europe. New Yorkers, however, are fairly inured to seeing rich and powerful men in handcuffs. Certainly it's been a major source of entertainment since I arrived here back in 1980. There's something deeply satisfying in the apparent incongruity of a well-cut business suit and handcuffs.

Back in the 1980s, during one of Wall Street's earlier bursts of irrational exuberance and criminal excess, then prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani made a specialty of cuffing white-collar criminals and presenting them for the cameras. Giuliani was criticised by some people for this behaviour, especially after some of the accused were acquitted, but the general public enjoyed seeing stockbrokers and investment bankers treated in the same fashion as other putative thieves.

More recently we saw Raj Rajaratnam, the billionaire head of the Galleon fund, being taken from FBI headquarters in New York after his conviction on insider-trading charges. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, responding to criticism of the so-called perp walk, defended the practice: "The public can see the alleged perpetrators," he said. "I think it is humiliating," he added. "But if you don't want to do the perp walk, don't do the crime." The mayor seems to have forgotten about the presumption of innocence, but his statement probably reflects the attitude of his constituents pretty accurately. New York's a tough place. Deal with it.

For blue-collar New Yorkers, no doubt, the prospect of seeing a French banker in handcuffs was deeply pleasing, particularly in the wake of the recession, which many blame on the big banks of Wall Street. And we can't entirely discount Francophobia, which is far less prevalent here than in the heartland but which is fanned and fomented on a regular basis by the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post, which famously, in the run-up to the Iraq war, branded the entire nation "Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys." At that time the Post eagerly promoted stories about boycotts against French products, printing pictures of patriots pouring bottles of Bordeaux in the gutter, although it's doubtful that any Chateau Margaux was lost in the process.

For Post readers, at least, Strauss-Kahn seems to have been born for the role of Arrogant Frog. But even for the more cosmopolitan readers of the New York Times – liberal Democrats who opposed the war in Iraq and consider themselves Francophiles – there's not a lot of sympathy for Strauss-Kahn, and not much indignation about his treatment. For this group – my tribe – two components of the liberal temperament are in conflict, and the tenets of feminism seem to be trumping concerns about civil liberties. Our sympathies tend toward the alleged victim, a Ghanaian immigrant and political refugee who somehow manages to support her daughter in this tough city on the minimum wage.

Among those I have spoken to there's a belated feeling that Europe is decidedly backward on the subjects of women's rights and sexual harassment. I say belated because during the Monica Lewinsky scandal we all spoke approvingly of the sophistication of the French, who didn't hold their leaders to some unrealistic standard of sexual purity, who in fact expected their (male) leaders to dally and stray and seduce. Look at François Mitterrand, we all said – it was an open secret that he kept a mistress and no one in France held it against him. In fact they seemed to think more of him for it.

We found this terribly sophisticated of the French and we bemoaned the prudishness of our church-going Midwestern fellow citizens. Those damn Republicans were so square, so unsophisticated. Not like the French. Not like us. Today the picture looks a little more complicated. The detention of Roman Polanski by Swiss authorities in 2009 revived a case which has continued to divide the American cultural elite. While many prominent citizens of Hollywood and New York endorsed what seems to be the European consensus that Polanski was the victim of some kind of American philistinism, many others, including some on the left, pointed out that he fled to France after being convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl. There are laws against this and presumably they apply to great directors.

Meanwhile, after observing the thuggish sexual antics of Silvio Berlusconi for more than a year, it's hard from this particular vantage-point to admire the sophistication of the Italian voters, who seem to some of us to have been ridiculously slow to register their disapproval. And now, in the immediate aftermath of Strauss-Kahn's arrest, we are reading in all four of our local papers about Strauss-Kahn's history of aggressive sexual behaviour, notably the alleged attempted rape of a journalist in 2002, and about the turning of many blind eyes on this type of conduct. We marvel at his dashing nickname, The Great Seducer, and we go back to our French dictionaries to see if by any chance seduction means coercion in French. But no.

Reading about the reaction in France has not been heartening for us Francophiles, either. The notion that this was a sting orchestrated by the US is ludicrous to us, the fact that it's widely believed in France even more so. We can only hope the Post was somehow mistaken in reporting that 60 per cent of French citizens polled think it was a trap. First of all, we have a left-leaning Democrat in the White House who is inevitably characterised by the opposition as a socialist. And in New York we have an independent mayor with presidential ambitions who has absolutely no incentive to conspire with the White House to derail the possible candidacy of a French politician, socialist or otherwise.

This theory presupposes spectacular ignorance of the complexities of the American political system. Even the notion of a smaller conspiracy, a trap set by Sarkozy operatives, seems more and more far-fetched as the details of the alleged attack, of the victim's history and of Strauss-Kahn's history trickle out.

On Thursday Strauss-Kahn, who has engaged some of the most expensive and successful lawyers in New York, was granted bail, and is being released under house arrest into the custody of a private security firm. "Frog Legs It," proclaimed the Post. "La 'Liberté' For French Big Shot." (You see why even when we don't agree with it we read it.) Strauss-Kahn will trade his handcuffs for an electronic ankle bracelet. Meanwhile we will eagerly monitor the overseas press for complaints from those who feel that the ankle bracelet is an undignified accessory for such an important man.

Jay McInerney is a New York-based novelist whose most recent book is a collection of short stories, How It Ended (2009)

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