The Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal is France’s Monica Lewinsky moment. The charges are far worse than in former US president Bill Clinton’s case, but France has been thrown into the same soul-searching about sex and power.
It is tearing itself apart about how to deal with the story. IMF managing director Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty, but the language of his leftwing allies and defenders — implicitly questioning the alleged victim’s honesty, stability and honey-trap potential — has sparked a debate on the sexism and snobbery of French politics.
The Paris elite has been forced to confront the issue of the sexual behavior, and at worst the alleged sex crimes, of its whole ruling class.
As the Socialist party on Tuesday met for crisis talks, senior Strauss-Kahn allies came under fire from feminists for their comments so far. Several Socialists had acknowledged outright that their mentor Strauss-Kahn was a “seducer” but went on to say that in no way had he “the profile of a rapist,” that the case could be a plot to bring him down, that the allegations were “hallucinations,” “not credible” or “full of contradictions” and he was simply “incapable” of having carried out the attack.
Others targeted the US justice system. Jack Lang, France’s Socialist former culture minister, said US justice was “politicized”; New York Judge Melissa Jackson was determined “to make a Frenchman pay.” Strauss-Kahn was portrayed as a martyr for being made to appear on TV in handcuffs. Robert Badinter, the former French justice minister, called his public appearance escorted by police “shameful” and a “tragedy.”
Caroline De Haas, head of the group Osez Le Feminisme, was deeply concerned at the debate’s tone.
“One comment was Strauss-Kahn didn’t have the ‘profile of a rapist.’ There is no such thing,” she said; rape took place throughout society and every social class.
With only 10 percent of France’s 75,000 rape victims each year going to the police, De Haas felt the outright dismissal of the attempted rape allegation sent a threatening message to victims in France.
Francois Bonnet, a founder of the influential Mediapart Web site, warned that by making a “blind defence” of Strauss-Kahn, his entourage was making a gross error which was damaging the entire Socialist party.
At the party headquarters, senior figures began attempting to temper comments. Jean-Pierre Bel, head of the Socialist group in the Senate, warned against talking of Strauss-Kahn’s innocence as a certainty, saying “one must wait” for the facts. Martine Aubry, the party leader, urged caution and awaited Strauss-Kahn’s version of events.
Women’s rights campaigners said the politicians had shown little thought for the alleged victim. Damagingly for the Socialist party, this aspect is interpreted as a class issue: the mighty dismissing the claims of a lowly worker. Clementine Autain, a feminist and a former Communist councilor in Paris, warned of the uncomfortable “class dimension” of politicians who wanted to “render invisible” the lowly chambermaid while “protecting” the head of the IMF.
Beatrice Vallaeys, a Liberation journalist, said the class element of a leftwing figure allegedly attacking one of the most vulnerable in society made the case appear even more morally corrupt. At stake was a wider question of the behavior of men in power, and what the French political class could or could not get away with in its treatment of women.