Sunday, June 5, 2011

Dominique Strauss-Kahn trial forces France to think again

As former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn returns to court on sex assault charges, France is gripped by a passionate debate over its tolerance of the sexual adventures of the political elite.

In the three weeks since New York police shattered the wall of silence that protects senior French figures by arresting the presidential frontrunner, there has been talk of little else around the dinner tables of Paris.

Amid the outrage -- real and feigned -- there is much disagreement as to what the trial will mean for French political life and private relationships, but experts agree on one thing: nothing will ever be the same again.

"Without a doubt, a dam has been breached in France by this unprecedented shock in our political life, the arrest of a favourite to take the presidency," said political scientist Frederic Dabi of the polling institute IFOP.

Many commentators -- using the initials by which Strauss-Kahn is well known in France -- speak in terms of modern political history now being divided into two periods: "The pre-DSK, and the post-DSK."

"The DSK scandal has had a first effect: A kind of omerta is being lifted, in particular among female politicians, who have been freed to denounce certain attitudes," said expert commentator Stephane Rozes.

Strauss-Kahn is due in court in New York on Monday to face allegations that he launched a brutal and sustained attack on a hotel maid, forcing himself on her orally and attempting rape.

He denies these charges, but the shock of the arrest triggered a flurry of claims of previous aggressive behaviour.

This in turn forced France to reconsider its tradition of cloaking the sex lives of its leaders behind a veil of indulgent secrecy, and of ignoring the predatory attitudes of some male politicians.

In the brief window since Strauss-Kahn was paraded in handcuffs on television screens and his latest hearing, several more scandals have surfaced and at least two more criminal investigations launched.

Public service minister Georges Tron, whose penchant for giving impromptu foot massages to women was notorious in political circles, resigned to fight allegations of more serious sexual assault on two employees.

And former education minister Luc Ferry has been questioned by police after blurting out on television that another former minister had been arrested in Morocco for molesting young boys and that the scandal had been hushed up.

Meanwhile, a string of female politicians have spoken out to journalists, to complain of a macho attitude in elite circles, where senior male figures regularly make inappropriate approaches to female colleagues.

Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno, for example, has said that she wears a trouser suit rather than a dress to address the National Assembly to deflect the roving eyes and coarse remarks of her male colleagues.

Other countries have had sex scandals and even rape allegations, but the "post-DSK" malaise has struck at the heart of France's image of itself as a haven for flirtatious gallantry rather than "Anglo-Saxon puritanism."

Instead, summarises Green Party leader Cecile Duflot, the DSK case has "revealed that there can be a kind of continuum between heavy-handed chat-up techniques and violence against women."

And it is not just in the political world that the shockwaves have been felt. Rape support groups have welcomed what they say is an opportunity to draw back the veil on the many unreported crimes against women.

But they have also warned that the constant discussion of the topic in the media has stirred deep-seated traumas in many victims.

One French group that deals with 6,000 cases per year, the Feminist Collective Against Rape, told AFP that the number of women seeking its assistance had gone up by 20 percent since the DSK scandal broke.

But both politicians and the public feel there is a middle way between covering up sexual attacks and throwing open private lives to public scrutiny, as they seem to imagine is the case in Britain or the United States.

"The risk is of a great wind of puritanism, a search for absolute purity, the idea that morality, which the Republic needs, be replaced by moralism, which would be the worst of things," said Henri Guaino, an advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Opinion polls show most voters agree with him.

"The French have not changed their republican fundamentals and remain attached, contrary to what we see in Anglo-Saxon Protestant countries, to a division between private and public life," Rozes said.
Fellow pollster Gael Sliman of the BVA agency agreed that he could find no sign "of any great desire by the French to see everything come out."

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