Saturday, July 2, 2011

It's all smiles in Manhattan for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but in France sexual politics has changed for ever

For Dominique Strauss-Kahn, it was all smiles as he walked out of court. But back in France there has been a tectonic change in attitudes, writes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.

For Dominique Strauss-Kahn, it was all smiles as he walked out of court. But back in France there has been a tectonic change in attitudes, writes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet.
Strauss-Kahn and his wife Anne Sinclair leave the apartment where they are staying in New York Photo: AFP

The photograph of Dominique Strauss-Kahn smiling with his glamorous wife, Anne Sinclair, as a free man in New York speaks volumes.

Everything about their appearance and demeanour telegraphs "victory", in this legal wrangle worthy of a television courtroom drama.

But, regardless of the outcome, the allegations that have emerged, both in court and in the media, about Mr Strauss-Kahn's escapades have caused a tectonic change in French politics, where habitual sexism and routine male straying were once seen as harmless.

French male politicians seemed slow on the uptake, but the women made up for it in spades. Seven of them, from the far Right to the far Left, and including two cabinet ministers, promptly denounced the chauvinism of their colleagues in scathing tones.

"I never wear a skirt when I come to the National Assembly for Wednesday's questions," disclosed Chantal Jouanno, the secretary of state for sports, and a former karate national champion, explaining thatSophie rude gestures, catcalls and jeers were so habitual among male MPs that they were never recorded or censured.

In a country where the most stringent privacy laws in the Western world are usually supported by public opinion and editors, suddenly the media were re-examining their choices. "Investigative reporting must stop at the bedroom door" had once been a mantra.

A couple of weeks ago, Le Monde, France's most austere broadsheet, where "all the news that's fit to print" had for half a century mostly meant arcane political and economics features written in high jargon, gave pride of place on most of its page three to a long piece on Strauss-Kahn's alleged escapades. This included the name and address of a swingers dining club where he was apparently known to habitués as "Le Ministre", and a police report on his having been surprised enjoying a prostitute's favours in a parked car in the Bois de Boulogne in 2007.

This was strong, indeed unprecedented, stuff.

A few days later, a Gaullist junior minister, Gorges Tron, who is also the mayor of his suburban town, got accused of sexual assault by two City Hall employees who alleged that he had abused them during reflexology foot massage seances he was, it was disclosed, in the habit of giving women in a specially appointed office. That this bizarre arrangement, on City time and presumably budget, was allowed to go on for years showed how much French politicians believed they could get away with.

Mr Tron, in time-honoured fashion, accused the women of political manoeuvring, and one of them of theft. But he was ordered by Nicolas Sarkozy to resign from the cabinet; and the National Assembly promptly voted to lift his MP's immunity, meaning he will have to fight charges in a criminal court in the coming months. The feeling in France was that this would never have happened before "L'Affaire DSK".

Now, however, if you are to believe the Socialist luminaries being interviewed all day on television after the latest developments in New York, everything is supposed to go back to square one.

Never mind that, as the alleged victim's lawyer said, "you can be a liar and still have been raped". "Dominique" was coming back: the white knight of the Socialist primaries. "It has all been a nightmare," as Jack Lang, the former culture minister said. The philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy, a prominent proponent of DSK's innocence, expressed his "happiness".

It remains to be seen whether French women will cave in meekly. This, to put it mildly, is very unlikely.

"Are we supposed to go back to our baskets nicely like before?" the novelist and feminist Sophie Chauveau asked. "I think not. You can't put this toxic paste back into the tube now."

Mr Sarkozy, who remained silent throughout L'Affaire, is watching with interest. Soon to be a father again, his own wife's wealth a pittance next to Miss Sinclair's, he feels that the character and extravagant habits he has been excoriated for in the past are no longer the issue for him, but rather for his adversary.

© Copyright Telegraph Media Group & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 2011

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