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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.

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In the mid-1970s, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing famously reflected on his appeal to female voters thus: “When I was president of the Republic, I was in love with 17 million Frenchwomen,” he told an interviewer. “When I saw them in the crowd, they felt it, and they voted for me.”

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His successor, François Mitterrand, when asked by a journalist during his presidency whether it was true that he had a mistress and illegitimate daughter, simply replied: “Yes, it’s true. And so what? It’s none of the public’s business.”

And until last week, the gossip centered on President Nicolas Sarkozy and his third wife, former model and pop star Carla Bruni. Is she pregnant? Is it his child? Did he have an affair with one of his ministers? Did she go to Thailand for a love holiday with a handsome rock star?

But the dramatic story surrounding Strauss-Kahn is of a different mold. This is not a story of seduction or sexual prowess. If the allegations are right, this is a story of sexual harassment and attempted rape.

Some observers say it is possible the DSK affair will actually serve as a watershed for this permissive and macho culture. But it is just as possible that the French, bouncing back from the initial embarrassment, will hold tight to their ways of doing things and turn their ire elsewhere. Former Culture minister Jack Lang has already shown how this can be done, charging that the US treatment of Strauss-Kahn is the problem. It has been "inhumane" and like a "lynching," he said this week – something that is provoking "horror and disgust" in the more civilized, privacy-sensitive France.

Even this week, amidst the soul-searching and the shock, some of the Parisian press, undaunted by any sense of propriety, tried to figure out how attractive the maid accusing Strauss-Kahn of rape may or may not be.

“Physically, accounts differ,” opined the website of Paris Match. “The lawyers for Strauss-Kahn apparently declared they were surprised to discover her face was ‘not very seductive,' " when they saw her at the police lineup. The French tabloid France-Soir, in turn, interviewed a limo driver who works with the hotel, quoting him as saying the housekeeper “was a very pretty woman in her thirties...”

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