France's 'boys will be boys' mentality challenges gender equality

The French may duly proclaim and agree with gender equality and modern feminist notions. But in practice, those ideas run up against a powerful, culturally sanctioned 'old-boy mentality.'

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters/File
Former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn leaves his apartment in Paris last month. After being accused of sexually assaulting a New York City hotel maid in 2011, Mr. Strauss-Kahn was the beneficiary of a fiercely protective response from members of France's elites.

The flip side of feminism in France is a very flip attitude that being macho is an excuse that rightly covers many sins.

The French may duly proclaim and agree with gender equality and modern feminist notions. But in practice, those ideas run up against a powerful, culturally sanctioned "old-boy mentality" in Paris – an attitude, often held among power elites of both sexes, that "boys will be boys."

When French politician and former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in 2011 on charges of raping a New York hotel maid, he immediately benefited from a powerful media defense in France, with leading intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Levy speaking out on his behalf.

And the defense of Mr. Strauss-Kahn echoed that which filmmaker Roman Polanski received in 2009. When Mr. Polanski, a French citizen, was detained in Switzerland for possible extradition to California on sexual misconduct charges dating from the 1970s, French elites – including the foreign minister and the minister of culture – took up for him.

Such defenses weren't exactly rational. But they were a very French response: an excuse roughly on the grounds that these things will happen and it's best not to make too much of them. Feminism may be fine and admirable in theory, but it isn't how life and nature work in reality.

In Washington, if a White House cabinet member or a major media figure made apologies for rape, that would likely end a career. But in Paris, things are not so cut and dried.

A cultural attitude rising out of French history suggests that taking license with the ladies is a harmless part of the French tradition of gallantry. And there is an instinctive use of a whole arsenal of cultural put-downs and withering comments about those with the temerity to too loudly raise issues of sexual harassment. If someone takes "feminism" too seriously, then maybe there is something irritating about them and they should lighten up!

Sexual harassment laws are on the books. But they are rarely enforced or prosecuted. One rarely hears of hefty fines, and cases don't get attention.

•Robert Marquand was the Monitor's Paris bureau chief from 2007 to 2012.

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