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As l'affaire Strauss-Kahn unfolds, embarrassment and defensiveness in France

The sexual-assault charges against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn have prompted some to question whether France has been too willing to turn a blind eye to politicians' indiscretions.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent / May 19, 2011

In this May 16 file photo, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the International Monetary Fund, is arraigned in Manhattan Criminal Court in New York.

Richard Drew/AP

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Paris

As dramatic details unfold about the charges of sexual assault against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the now-former head of the International Monetary Fund, there is embarrassment in France today – but also a certain collective defensiveness.

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Some in the country are angry that Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who resigned his IMF post Wednesday night and has seen his presidential ambitions implode, has been treated like a criminal before being proven guilty. There is talk of a plot against him, and denial of what seem to be increasingly incriminating facts. A recent poll carried out by the free daily "20 minutes," shows that some 57 percent of those questioned believe that Strauss-Kahn has been set up. The figure shoots up to 70 percent among Socialist voters.

“It highlights France’s denial," Jérome Sainte-Marie, political director at the polling group CSA, which carried out the survey, told the Financial Times. "People do not want to believe it and it is interesting from the collective psychology point of view.”

Still, the accusations, which have landed the suave Strauss-Kahn in a cell in New York's notorious Rikers Island, his million-dollar bail offer denied, have hit a raw nerve here. There is an uneasy sense that France has been exposed, and that the French tradition of complicity in the sexual secrets of the rich, famous, and powerful has been laid out for all to see.

As such, there seems to be some soul-searching going on. Did the pervasive culture here, which regards philandering as merely part of a long French tradition, allow a dangerous blind eye to be turned to rumors of Strauss-Kahn’s previously predatory behavior toward women? That's what some French editorials are asking, as women come out of the woodwork with unappealing tales about the prominent politician. His behavior, ventured the newspaper Le Figaro, would probably have spelled the end of a career in many another country.

Typically, philandering or even sexual aggressiveness is rarely raised in the press. In a country where the affairs of the powerful are treated with a shrug, or even a nod of approval, it is all simply a tale of titillating tattle, amounting, politically, to nothing.

“Almost all French male politicians are compulsive womanizers,” wrote Christophe Dubois and Christophe Deloire in their 2006 book on the personal lives of leading politicians, "Sexus Politicus." “Far from being a flaw, to cast yourself in the role of seducer is without doubt an important quality in our political life.”

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