In France, each ripple in faltering Strauss-Kahn case dissected, debated

Though the case against DSK in New York seems to be cracking, the conversation in France about entrenched machismo attitudes isn't, in part due to new accusations against the former IMF chief.

By , Staff writer

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    French writer Tristane Banon, left, filed sexual assault charges in Paris Tuesday against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Ms. Banon, seen with her lawyer, accused the former International Monetary Fund chief, who faces sexual assault charges in New York, of attempting to rape her in 2003.
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The media frenzy over Dominique Strauss-Kahn, until recently the leading contender in next year’s French presidential polls, is so thick that both revulsion and fascination about the case have become a major part of the story line in France. Mr. Strauss-Kahn has become a Page 1 mainstay.

And just as the shock of “L’affaire DSK” was beginning to settle down, suggestions that the Sofitel hotel maid who accused the former International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief of sexual assault is not credible has shifted the narrative into “Strauss-Kahn's wild ride.”

Now, as Strauss-Kahn says he will plead not guilty to all charges (if the charges aren't dropped), theories in Paris abound on how a presidential hopeful may have been framed for rape. Add to this new allegations that DSK attempted to rape a young French novelist.

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But amid all of the flux in the Strauss-Kahn case, the electric headlines, the French anger at perceived American haste to charge the former IMF director, there remains quietly in the background, heard in cafes and at dinner tables, a pushback against a culture of machismo among French male elites. Call it France’s “Anita Hill” moment, however faintly. Even though the charges against DSK remain in question, one matter is agreed: male harassment is a more open subject.

“In France, there has been a divide between men and women in their response to the Strauss-Kahn case that is as great as the divide between the US and France,” says Dominique Moisi, a leading intellectual at the French Institute of International Relations. “The majority of French women were convinced of his culpability, while men were much more prudent.”

A new dialogue

The glare, vulgarity, and uncertainty over DSK should not eclipse a “virtuous” side of events, notes Sylvain Bourmeau, writing this week in the daily Liberation: “Its worth lies in … debates that were for too long forbidden and which are now taking root in conversations between friends … . By casting a crude light on certain social milieus, starting with politics, it allows for new perspectives on male domination.”

Yet many French see machismo as an entrenched problem and are skeptical that changes in culture will come about over a summer or two.

Louise, a French woman who works in a suburban Paris kitchen were the other female staff express disdain for DSK, said that dropped charges in New York would mean that “now victims will think twice before reporting rape.”

The second allegation

Even if the Manhattan case falls apart, Strauss-Kahn may still face sexual assault charges in Paris. A young writer named Tristane Banon, whose allegations of attempted rape by Strauss Kahn in 2003 have been long known in the shadows here, has filed formal charges against him. The DSK legal team called the charges “imaginary.” But a trial here may keep alive the basic issue of unwanted male advances. Her charges also appear to have dimmed the glow of any DSK triumphalism.

At age 22, Ms. Banon interviewed DSK in a private apartment of his choosing. She says he approached her with force, tried to rip off her blouse, bra, and jeans, and that she had to kick him and forcibly remove herself. She was deeply shaken. But Banon’s mother talked her out of filing charges, and Banon did not wish to start her writing career with a rape allegation against a powerful Socialist party politician in her mother’s party.

Banon went public in 2007 on French TV on a somewhat arcane talk show during which the name Strauss-Kahn was bleeped out. An autobiographical novel includes the encounter. Now, her charges are being called politically motivated since she has written for a new site connected to the French ruling party.

Banon herself says she is simply tired of “being called a liar” and in a L’Express interview said, “For once I want to have control over what is happening to me… finally, there’s a chance that I will be listened to. I want only one thing: that he [Strauss-Kahn] returns to France with his presumption of innocence so we can go before the court.”

“Banon’s claim will not prevent DSK from claiming victory if he gets a dismissal in the Sofitel affair,” says Paris commentator Karim Emile Bitar. “Banon’s version of events might be close to the truth but the alleged rape attempt took place eight years ago and DSK’s battalions of lawyers and communication consultants have already started undermining her story and attacking her character.

“However,” Mr. Bitar went on to say, “even if it does not end in a DSK conviction, Banon accusing him of acting like a ‘rutting chimpanzee’ will keep DSK’s antics on the front pages for a while, and this will complicate a smooth political comeback."

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