The culture that allows French men to see female colleagues as fair game is still alive and well, says Anne-Elisabeth Moutet in Paris
You could tell something unscripted was happening on the set of Thursday night's prime-time discussion programme on Dominique Strauss-Kahn by the stony faces of the male guests. There were several top newspaper and news magazines editors, a former Justice Minister and president of the Supreme Court, and a couple of politicians. The lone woman on the set, Hélène Jouan, a senior current affairs chief at France Inter - The French answer to Radio Four - broke into the cosy excuses mouthed by everyone for Strauss-Kahn's predicament. Every woman journalist, she said, knew the pervasive atmosphere fostered by powerful men in France, in which females were at the very least importuned with impunity, and disregarded – not even disbelieved – when worse happened. This had created, she said, the culture in which someone like Strauss-Kahn could, and did, think he could get away with anything.
She herself, Jouan said, hadn't been the victim of over-the-red-line harassment, but the very atmosphere in which salacious propositioning texts or late-night knocks on her hotel room door by politicians on the campaign trail were a common occurrence. She said it "was so heavy sometimes that at the beginning of my career, I almost gave up journalism."
The lack of response from the hitherto voluble other guests was spectacular. Robert Badinter, the former Socialist Justice Minister, had just ranted against the evils of the American justice system, which, he said, "submitted Strauss-Kahn to a death by public pillorying when he ought to have been protected by the presumption of innocence." Falling back on that hardy French perennial, anti-Americanism, everyone had opined that a system in which elected judges took into account public sentiment, sometimes even from "the popular classes", was "the worst possible" and "allowed every excess."
Jouan's statements hit the French Zeitgeist at a key moment. Ever since the French were confronted with the unimaginable pictures of one of their rulers, a man widely expected to become President of the Republic, unshaven and in handcuffs in the dock of a Manhattan courthouse, reactions have been increasingly split between disbelieving shock and knowing outrage – and more and more, as one tin-eared Strauss-Kahn supporter after another dropped a toxic brick into the debate, along gender, and, to a lesser extent, class lines.
"Why all the fuss? It's merely a bit of hanky-panky with the help," said Jean-François Kahn, the crusading editor of the Left-wing Marianne weekly. Jack Lang, a law don famous for having been François Mitterrand's high-profile, graffiti-loving, diversity-fostering Culture Minister, dismissed it all rather infelicitously as an "overblown" affair: "Really, nobody died in that hotel room."
Everyone suddenly had stories to tell. The actress who was ordered in a very few rude words by the legendary actor-director Jean-Louis Barrault to perform a sex act on him before he would even deign to allow her to audition for him (she walked out). The radiojournalist who, some years back, kneeling on the carpet of the Mayor of Rouen and one-time presidential hopeful, Jean Lecanuet, to plug in her Nagra recorder, found him close behind her in an expectant pose. The women political correspondents who recalled L'Express's famous editor, Françoise Giroud, advising them on how to dress and to make up in order to "make politicians talk."
I have good reason to believe them. First, because I had heard the stories over the years – and because it is impossible not to notice how many women journalists are "linked" - and sometimes married - to French politicians. Second because I, too, remember all too well my junior reporting days for a French news-weekly, a couple of decades ago, when the late Gaullist MP Robert-André Vivien called me "my little honeyrabbit" one minute into our interview; or when the former Socialist Paris Senator Claude Estier offered to drive me home since I lived in his constituency, only to "mistake" my knee for the stick shift at every red light.
This, and other similar instances, was far from the circumstances of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged assault – although not getting the story for refusing to play the game with a vindictive interviewee, which was always possible, would have had me derided as a "sissy" by my French editor. Writing it up humorously was never an option in the obsequious world of French political journalism, at least at the time.
I never felt threatened, and was easily able to talk my way out of what was very obviously on offer – a valuable skill in France. But it always remains, like low-volume static, at the back of interactions between men in a situation of power and the women who have to work with them. Tristane Banon, the young writer who told of being violently assaulted by Strauss-Kahn back in 2002, when she was only 22, remarks tellingly that no secretary "under the age of 60 or not obese" ever wanted to work for him at the National Assembly.
Most of the time, Frenchwomen conform to expectations that they will be "sophisticated" and not take any of this "seriously", i.e. not complain. In the case of Strauss-Kahn, his womanising, with or without forceful persuasion, got far enough that his spin doctors, a four-person team with a manner to rival Alastair Campbell's, have had to threaten, bully and intimidate a number of his "conquests". Banon, for instance, saw her book bowdlerised, had job offers suddenly retracted and nasty unfounded rumours started on her alleged lifestyle. No wonder that she shies from lodging a formal lawsuit against Strauss-Kahn.
Two women have remained remarkably silent over the whole affair. One is Strauss-Kahn's long-suffering wife, the television personality and art heiress Anne Sinclair, who has supported him in über-Hillary Clinton style through this as in every previous episode. (If you look at previous French first ladies, from Anne-Aymone Giscard d'Estaing to Danielle Mitterrand to Bernadette Chirac, all in unflinching denial throughout well-charted "incidents" in their husbands' lives, you have to admit Sinclair had the genre nailed down.)
The other is France's leading feminist, Elisabeth Badinter, acknowledged as Simone de Beauvoir's intellectual successor, who is married to the former Socialist justice minister, Robert Badinter.
As it happens, the Badinters and the Strauss-Kahns, in addition to being political buddies, are close enough friends that they take holidays together and keep in regular touch. Breakfast conversation may remain strained for the foreseeable future chez les Badinter, after Robert's statements of the past week – but so far, the old, increasingly tattered French omertà still holds.
© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2011