In the year of the impeachment of the American president for sexual impropriety, the casting aside of Indonesia's old regime for misrule and the discrediting of the Kremlin for corruption, the scandal-driven resignation of France's finance minister may seem a small blip on the radar screen of world politics.
But the timing and method of the abrupt departure of Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn last week for allegedly participating in a cover-up reveal far-reaching forces of change that lie just below the surface in France.
The pursuit of Strauss-Kahn by French judges and the press to the point of resignation suggests most immediately that the nature of scandal is changing in France. So is the nature of power--and of the state that has exercised that power so freely for centuries.
Timing counts too: The forced change in Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's Cabinet accelerates his internal political war with President Jacques Chirac. And the disappearance of Strauss-Kahn, one of the few important French politicians recently willing to speak approvingly of American values in public, removes an important counterweight to a nasty tone of anti-Americanism that is again creeping into French politics and diplomacy.
Strauss-Kahn's skillful handling of the economy and of the media both locally and internationally made him the center of Jospin's Socialist-led coalition. There was talk of his eventually becoming the first Jewish president of France's Fifth Republic. The presidential aura was enhanced by his being known popularly by his initials, DSK.
This talk died when Strauss-Kahn was fingered two weeks ago in a judicial investigation and then in leaks to the press for allegedly having violated Rule One of politics since Watergate: It is the cover-up not the misdeed that will kill you.
About five years ago, as a lawyer in private practice, Strauss-Kahn brought together a conglomerate investor and a troubled business concern intimately linked to his Socialist Party. He received $100,000 for his involvement--a fee that appears on its face to be justifiable but potentially embarrassing for him with Socialist militants.
The collapse of the troubled business concern this year led investigating magistrates to ask for proof of the work performed. Letters were produced, but the magistrates determined they were postdated documents manufactured to fool them. Strauss-Kahn denied any wrongdoing, and he quickly resigned to still the uproar created by remarkably full accounts of the case in the French press.
Aggressive pursuit of French political leaders by French magistrates, whose powers combine those of a district attorney and a preliminary hearing judge in the United States, is a recent but spreading phenomenon in France. President Chirac's conservative forces have been shaken by similar corruption inquiries and press leaks in the past three years.
Now it is the turn of Jospin's center-left government. Its main selling points have been honesty and sobriety in government and pragmatic management of the recovering economy. Jospin's surprise election victory in 1997 seemed to restore French public tolerance for, if not faith in, its political elite after a period of open disgust and rejection.
France in its Cartesian lucidity has a history of forming elites to govern and then giving them enormous latitude to do so. Its rulers could proclaim that "I am the state" and be understood. Whether royalist or republican, those who governed could count on "reasons of state" to overwhelm scandals, which simply disappeared at the point where they threatened to disrupt the state machinery.
How this is changing can be seen through the Strauss-Kahn affair. A truly independent judiciary is emerging as a new center contesting for power once held almost exclusively by the executive branch. The judges are aided by a press less and less willing to protect politicians--even those it likes.
This "modernization," as many Americans will see it, may provide French society with a safety valve. But another recurring theme of French history is the explosion of the populace when it becomes convinced that the elite it empowered has become bankrupt--intellectually, militarily or financially. Further discrediting of Jospin's team and other politicians could have unpredictable consequences.
France seems willing to take that chance. Another political phrase coined here is that the graveyard is full of indispensable leaders. This is a nation with little sentimentality or patience for elites it no longer trusts.