When former presidential candidate and head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested in New York on charges of rape, French intellectuals and politicians were quick to rush to his defense. The French media jumped on the story, but the message in many of those reports was often “poor DSK,” as one French journalist wrote. Strauss-Kahn had even previously been dubbed "le grand séducteur" (the Great Seducer) by Le Journal du Dimanche.
“There has been a big denial in France. It’s been five days and people are still saying it’s not true and it was a set up,” said Natacha Henry, who writes about women’s issues in France. Her most recent book, To Hit is Not to Love, is about domestic violence in France.
Strauss-Kahn is a huge power in France. He has been a long-time leader in the French Socialist Party, and has worked at the IMF since 2007, where most recently he's been preparing emergency loan packages for troubled economies such as Greece and Pakistan. Strauss-Kahn also has recently been considered a possible successor to President Nicholas Sarkozy in the next election.
But Strauss-Kahn’s arrest has reignited past allegations of sexual misconduct; in 2007, French journalist and daughter of Socialist Party official Anne Mansouret, Tristane Banon said on television that Strauss-Kahn had attempted to rape her. She was laughed at by the host of the show, Thierry Adisson. Banon is now filing a complaint against Strauss-Kahn.
The blowback from these allegations has included reports that this is a smear campaign to ruin Strauss-Kahn’s chances at becoming president, with some claiming the maid was a prostitute who was paid to pretend to be raped, and that the activities were consensual. Strauss-Kahn’s friends and supporters have also sprung to his aid, calling him a “womanizer” who should have known better than to go to the US.
French feminists see his arrest as a watershed moment for violence against women in France, and have stated that Strauss-Kahn’s actions are part of a larger issue with French men.
Sexual harassment in the workplace was outlawed in France in 1992, though their laws are considered narrower in scope than those in place in the United States.
Henry believes France has a much larger problem with sexual violence than the United States; in fact, she sees the US as the saving grace in the former IMF executive’s scandal. “This story could not have happened in France…if it had been in France, this maid never would have said anything,” Henry said. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in 2009 there were 10,277 reported rapes in France. In the US, that number was 89,000.
To Henry, Strauss-Kahn’s actions are part of a larger culture of silence, in which rape and sexual harassment are used as weapons of power.
When asked why women do not report being raped, Henry said that half the women she knows have been raped, but none have them have been to the police, because they believe they would not be taken seriously.
“I’m happy to see that the American justice is saying to the French, ‘You can’t have this happen’”, Henry said. “No one is saying, ‘No, he’s very important, please be quiet.”
Women in France are discouraged from reporting sexual harassment, and equally discouraged to identify as feminists – a surprising point to some, considering France was once home to one of the world’s most famous feminists, Simone de Beauvoir. Henry credits this disconnect to a culture focused on producing feminine, not feminist, women. “If someone says, oh you are a feminist, that’s the end of your…possibilities of being a pretty girl,” she notes.
Those shocked by Strauss-Kahn hope he will remain in the US for a significant amount of time, so that the repercussions of these actions get out to other French men. But some are concerned the story will be swept under the rug by a settlement.
Ultimately, the legacy of these allegations will not go forgotten – Henry called this “the biggest political scandal in France since I was born 40 years ago. We’ve never seen anything like this."
Thankfully, “The whole world is on our side, the side of the French feminists. Because we felt very lonely for a long time.”