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.

Richard Drew/AP
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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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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