In the Strauss-Kahn case, the unthinkable is merely French

To understand why l'affaire DSK has so far failed to upend the political career of a disgraced politician, look no further than France's own history.

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In a disarming snapshot of what the French call l'affaire DSK, France 3's late-night television news anchor, Patricia Loison, faced Patrick Girard, whose book Sex, Lies and Politics has just appeared.

She quoted an extract: "On the bench of the accused, in May, one of French socialism's brightest hopes lowers his head. His unbridled sensuality has taken a very bad turn and could earn him a prison sentence, and even make him ineligible for office."

As Loison observed, the passage evokes the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a strong contender for the presidency of France until his arrest on sex charges in New York.

But Girard's words were written before Mr Strauss-Kahn's brush with the US criminal justice system. They referred to another May, 111 years ago, when one Aristide Briand was caught in compromising circumstances with a mistress. The matter was dealt with painlessly enough for him to go on to serve as prime minister and collect a Nobel Peace Prize.

This episode from French history helps explain why, as the criminal case against Mr Strauss-Kahn appeared near collapse, 49 per cent of those questioned in an opinion poll said they would welcome his return to public life. Support among socialist voters was higher still and more than half wanted an extension of Wednesday's deadline for would-be candidates to add their names. In another poll, most opposed a Strauss-Kahn candidacy but 44 per cent still felt he would make a good president.

In 1900, different mores applied. Mr Briand would no more face legal difficulties in France for an inadvisable encounter in the meadow today than Mr Strauss-Kahn would be in electoral trouble had the worst of his concerns been a reputation for womanising.

Without minimising the allegations of the journalist Tristane Banon, who claims Mr Strauss-Kahn molested her in 2003, it also seems inconceivable that she would have filed charges so long after the event had it not been for his arrest.

The sexual meanderings of men of state do not trouble the French in the way they trouble others in what is known derisively in France as "the Anglo-Saxon world".

The last socialist president François Mitterrand went to some lengths to keep his double life, a parallel family of partner and daughter, under wraps. Those lengths extended to abuse of state apparatus. But 15 years after his death, French socialists revere his memory.

Rumours about the philandering of Jacques Chirac, Mr Mitterrand's centre-right successor at the Elysée, were frequently aired at Parisian dinner tables long before his wife, Bernadette, referred to it in an interview.

The twists and turns in the DSK saga take me back to a day not long before the 2007 presidential elections. Across the table in a smart Parisian restaurant, one of France's wealthiest talked about the private lives of public men.

There had been speculation about the state of then-candidate Nicolas Sarkozy's marriage, and about the private lives of other politicians. My lunch companion sighed: "If more people acted like Bernadette Chirac, and took a philosophical view of fidelity, everyone would be a lot happier, no one would mind and government would be no worse off."

Once again, elections are looming. And once again, Gallic attitudes are being scrutinised. The French media have become more prurient in recent years, but remain discreet by other western standards. Most people still refuse to judge a politician on whether he has affairs.

Consider again that poll favouring Mr Strauss-Kahn's return to politics.

It is unthinkable that an American or British politician in such a scandal could straight afterwards be thought electable to high office.

Now, France being different, imagine victory for Mr Strauss-Kahn. Installed in the Elysée, he begins representing his country on the world stage. The US media would have a field day each time this man, remembered as the character in handcuffs after an unseemly encounter with a chambermaid, visited as an international statesman.

Time will tell the extent to which he chooses to return to public life.

But rehabilitation is not far from the thoughts of Patrick Girard as he promotes Sex, Lies and Politics. Recalling how Aristide Briand was able to rise above disgrace, Mr Girard offered this thought: "How reassuring for DSK that he may yet be able to become minister for women."

Colin Randall is the former executive editor of The National