Sexual Harassment in France: French Women Break the Silence
[Editor's Note: The sexual assault charges against former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn unleashed a deep pent-up anger in French women. As a result of DSK's arrest, feminist bloggers and journalists in France have exposed a culture where rampant sexism is De rigueur.
French blogger Marine Forest wrote this post on the feminist reaction in France from her home in Nice. Many thanks to Eliane Fiolet, co-founder and editor of the San Francisco-based website Ubergizmo, who introduced me to Marine and translated this post. --Mona]
In France, the DSK case has plunged us into shock and reflection.
Seeing this powerful man, our likely next president, so diminished, left in the hands of the American legal system, literally stunned us. All day in front of our TVs, we felt like we were in one of those American primetime legal dramas, fascinated by the spectacle.
At the outset, the reactions from various intellectuals and leftist politicians were unanimous: defending their friend, they couldn't believe it. They primarily thought about a conspiracy, and then they exclaimed: “A man such as DSK, so powerful and respected! How could he be treated this way, like a vulgar thug from the Bronx!” “And, this maid, who is she, first of all? She is a storyteller for sure, paid to entrap the IMF director!”
The implied message was: “Ah! That dammed seducer ... if only he had done this in France, at least, this case would never have made such a buzz!” (It would even have been covered up).
According to his defenders, DSK could only be a “seducer, a womanizer, for sure, but not a rapist!”
The numerous reactions of our politicians, each more macho than the other, were successively reported by the media: DSK loves women, that’s all!
On the national evening news, Jack Lang minimized the scandal by declaring: “No man had died!” The apogee was reached by Jean-François Kahn, director of Marianne, a leftist political magazine when he said this was not a rape, but to a certain extent a “troussage de domestique” (a master having sex with a servant – most likely non-consensual).
These few words, even more foul than the previous sexist remarks, forced the journalist to resign a few days later.
Blinded by their friendship with DSK, our great thinkers and politicians threw themselves body and soul into defending one of their own. And they did this without caring about the awful message they were sending to the French people:
--We are still in the Ancien Regime, castes exist, and we will do everything we can to preserve the honor of one of us, to enable him to escape from justice. Because he is a Very Important Person. Even if he is an alleged criminal.
--Women, all of you who have been assaulted and never said anything: never dare file a lawsuit against a famous person. Your word will never be believed; you will be seen as a hysteric, a liar, an ambitious woman.
Little by little, voices have risen, among the French and other journalists, to express discomfort that no word or even a slightest hint of concern was made for the alleged victim -- an unknown maid, poor, black.
Scandalized, the organization Osez le Feminisme (Dare Feminism) rapidly organized a protest against sexism, and were able to collect 30,000 signatures in just days.
Another thing Americans might find shocking about sexual harassment in France. A lot of our old school political journalists knew about DSK’s predatory behavior toward women, but they kept silent. They used the protection of private life as an excuse. Why weren't the French people informed by journalists about those "seductive” behaviors that really constituted harassment? Why do we have the impression that political journalists are more preoccupied by building their professional relationships, by their business dinners with their sources, than by informing the public?
Many French women, and a significant number of men, feel a strong discomfort. A large number of French women have been -- or will be -- sexually assaulted during their lifetime. Hearing the statements from another era -- from men who are supposed to govern, protect and inform us -- leaves me, like many others, pensive, with a strange sensation of hangover.
Sexism in France is strong. Many French women work but only a few have reached top management positions. There is a real self-censorship in our country -- and very often, a successful woman has to face judgmental comments, suspicions, doubts regarding her skills and competence.
Admittedly, France is the country of “l’art galant” (the art of seduction). For our exquisite pleasure, male-female interactions are often tinted with a slight ambiguity. France is celebrated, specifically in America, for its tolerance toward flirting and sexuality.
But too many men believe that they can use their social status to cross the line, not only the moral line but the legal one. Harassment and sexual assault, not necessarily involving violence, but the use of threats, intimidation, and abuse of power, are still largely tolerated.
At the same time, we French love to criticize American Puritanism by resorting to a few stereotypes: the coldness and the litigiousness of male-female interactions, the impossibility of seduction, the chaste moral standards, and above all, the hypocrisy.
Some politicians and journalists, facing our demand to know more about our political leaders and our request for transparency, accuse us of promoting totalitarianism and see the shadow of Big Brother. On the contrary, it is the opposite that is dangerous. (The fact that the elite put citizens under surveillance!)
Little by little, a debate is emerging over the responsibility of journalists to inform us about the entire personality of our politicians.
Shouldn't sexual harassment be less tolerated? Shouldn't the word of the victim be presumed true -- as much as the word of the alleged innocent -- to encourage women to denounce the violence they've been subjected to? And to report it?
Shouldn't our elected officials be accountable, irreproachable? And, given their privileges, shouldn't they be even more accountable than the public? Shouldn't people in power be more aware than others of the risk of abusing their power?