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Matthew Norman

Matthew Norman: At least our papers don't pander to the political elite

Our tabloids are unlovely beasts, but by God the terror of them tends to keep the basest instincts in check

The French and English have fought tigerishly for centuries on many terrains since Harold took one in the eye at Hastings, but never can there have been a contest as laughably catchweight as the race for political destruction raging today.

In the patriotic quest for some semblance of equality, all you can say is that Chris Huhne now has the identical chance of leading the Liberal Democrats as does Dominique Strauss-Kahn of leading France. That apart, the one thing in common is that both men's alibi revolves around the timing of an airport journey.

Mr Huhne had flown back to Britain the night somebody scored a speeding ticket on the way home from Stansted. Close analysis of his then wife's itinerary suggests that Vicky Pryce would have struggled to reach Stansted in time to collect him, as he claims, though not impossible. Had she left her dinner in London and driven in Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull at a steady 217mph, she might have made it. Failing that, we're down to a tear in the fabric of space-time.

As for the IMF managing director now known as DSK, he was hurriedly preparing to leave for the airport when whatever happened with the chambermaid took place. His friends say nothing whatever happened; that he had already checked out of the Sofitel and was lunching with a daughter en route to JFK. Whether she will confirm this from the witness box will emerge soon enough.

In the meantime, let it piously be stated that Mr Huhne has not been charged with anything, and Mr Strauss-Kahn convicted of nothing. Conjoined by the presumption of innocence as well as airport dashes, thereafter their stories diverge. Although Ms Pryce honours her Hellenic heritage by playing Nemesis, all the Greek tragedy belongs to DSK, whose descent is modelled on the one that intrigued Sophocles and the other laughing boys of the Athenian stage. Olympian arrogance led to an act of utter madness, which in turn sent an embossed invitation to a scarier manifestation of nemesis than even Ms Pryce.

What drove a brilliant man with every chance of moving into the Elysée Palace to make the young Mike Tyson look like Robert Donat courting Greer Garson on the Danube in Goodbye Mr Chips, we may never know. However hard he may be reflecting on this in his Rikers Island cell, it probably makes no more sense to him. One could speculate about the droit de seigneur still operated by the French ruling class, contrasting the mighty amorous careers of François Mittérand and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing with John Major's Pooterish affair with Mrs Currie. But that hardly covers the alleged enforced oral sex.

One might wonder whether the residual racism of the French elite led him allegedly to treat an African-American woman with a savagery he would not have unleashed upon a white one, but there's not a scrap of evidence for that. Sometimes there is little for it but to throw up the hands in disbelief, and shudder at the spectre of a man throwing away a lifetime's achievement and a potentially stellar future in a moment.

If his breakneck journey from master of the universe to cellmate of New York low life brings to mind Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities, DSK's supporters prefer another filmic reference point. They seem to think the template is the preppy Dan Aykroyd character in Trading Places, banged up with hookers, pimps and drug dealers after being framed. Conspiracy theories in Paris centre on entrapment at the hands of political enemies at home, or a US administration frightened by his pungent views on the American deficit. It may not be long before someone claims that, along with the daughter, his lunch companions included Osama bin Laden and Obama's Kenyan midwife.

Yet it is in the less outlandish French reaction that a clue lies as to how this came to be. His Socialist Party ally Elisabeth Guigou, a former Justice minister, is outraged by "a brutality, a violence of an incredible cruelty". Before you congratulate her on empathising so powerfully with the chambermaid, she was talking about the release of pictures of DSK in his handcuffs. She and others are disgusted that his $1m bail offer was refused, and no wonder. It isn't every day that somebody rejects an interest-free loan from the IMF. Mme Guigou is "happy we don't have the same judicial system", and we may indeed assume that similar allegations made by a cleaner at the George V in Paris would no more have made it to court than into print.

More relevant to this auto-destruction than radically different sexual mores, you suspect, is radically different newspaper practice. The lofty conceit of Guigou, and others, in ignoring the alleged crimes to rail about the affront to a demigod's dignity could not exist in a country blessed with lively tabloids. Had Arnold Schwarzenegger sired a child by a servant in Paris, he could continue to campaign as a loving husband. But there is no resentment at Le Monde about being denied the right to expose hypocrisy. Whatever the infidelities elsewhere, the one lover with whom the French politician remains forever faithful is the French press. Into this cosy lovefest between twin elites, neither partner would dream of admitting anything so common and insignificant as the electorate.

It may seem opportunistic to adduce the secretive culture which must have played a part in emboldening M Strauss-Kahn in our fight against the super-injunction. But while British politicians may or may not take liberties over traffic offences, it is unimaginable that any would behave as DSK is alleged to have done, or commit suicide by red top by racing to his defence.

Our tabloids are unlovely beasts, but by God the terror of them tends to keep the basest instincts in check. If our papers are too easily roused – and the anguish about DSK's possible, if unlikely, IMF successor Gordon Brown lightly shoving an aide does seem a bit silly today – far better to err on the side of hysteria than that of nudge-nudge, wink-wink, rulers-will-be-rulers indulgence.

The downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn may knock the likely end of Chris Huhne's career into a cocked hat when it comes to grandeur, melodrama and tragic epicity. But in the clash of newspaper cultures, the victory is ours and just as clear-cut. We must keep it that way.