Women against sexism - the new French revolution
John Costello reports that even Carla Bruni has joined the backlash after Dominique Strauss-Khan's arrest
Published 08/06/2011 | 05:00
They may have a reputation for being skilful and sensuous lovers, but when it comes to sex it appears Frenchmen are more Benny Hill than Casanova.
Despite its reputation for cultural superiority and sexual sophistication, a tidal wave of revelations in the wake of the scandal surrounding former IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn has unmasked France as the dirty old man of Europe.
Since Strauss-Kahn was charged with sexually assaulting a Manhattan hotel maid, complaints against "casual" sexism in the country have rocketed an astounding 600%.
Women have been marching on the streets of Paris vowing to expose the pervasive macho culture in France, where sexism and abuse can thrive.
While Strauss-Kahn's alleged behaviour caused outrage, it was the reaction of prominent Frenchmen who questioned the victim's judgment and the seriousness of the charges that sparked the reaction from French feminists.
Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy claimed Strauss-Kahn had been "thrown to the dogs" and asked why had the maid entered his hotel suite alone and without knocking.
One of France's best-known intellectuals, Jean-François Kahn, added more fuel to the fire when in a national television interview he said, "He lifted the skirt of a servant... It's not right, but..."
He then described the sordid episode as "troussage de domestique," a phrase that alludes to a time when it was a master's right to engage in non-consensual sex with a servant.
Former culture minister Jack Lang then refused to retract his comment that Strauss-Kahn should have been released on bail because "no one is dead".
It is such remarks that have seen French women rush to revolt.
Over 25,000 signed a petition expressing disgust at "a daily outpouring of misogynist comments by public figures", while several hundred demonstrated with placards at France's laissez-faire attitude, which they say gives powerful men carte blanche to mistreat women.
The result has seen the eruption of ferocious debate in France, where women have been questioning a culture where flirting, seduction and sensuality are considered a harmless touch of spice to everyday life.
However, many prominent women say to succeed in politics, business and the media in France they are forced to accept "heavy flirting" that often borders on harassment. Even more so, they are never expected to rock the boat by causing a fuss.
But French women are finally speaking out.
The former environment minister Corinne Lepage spoke of the response of a male politician when his female colleague raised the issue of rape in parliament: "With a face like that it's hardly going to happen to you."
Even more shockingly, another leading female politician described how when she turned up in tight-fitting clothes to a parliamentary commission, a member of President Sarkozy's ruling party exclaimed: "Dressed like that, don't be surprised if you get raped."
The high-profile journalist Hélène Jouan then revealed how when she was starting out on her career she had to put up with politicians "knocking on my hotel-room door" and sending unwanted text messages.
Even though the attention made her feel uncomfortable, it was not something she felt free to complain about.
The era of Wikileaks may have fuelled anonymous whistle- blowing, but an increasing number of women in France are lining up in person to go on record and complain about the overbearing sexism they encounter on a regular basis.
Chantal Jouanno, the sports minister and a former French Karate champion, says she can no longer turn up to parliament in a skirt without a volley of catcalls.
Several senior female politicians have complained of sexist jokes, disparaging comments and even being propositioned.
However, for many it is not a simple case of black and white. Political commentator Agnès Poirier believes the relationship between the sexes in France is something of a double-edged sword.
"A lot of my British and American friends when they come to Paris say, 'I feel like a woman because men are looking at me'," she says.
However, when such advances are unwanted and even become forceful women are not expected to get overly dramatic.
"They don't straight away go to a police station," says Poirier. "They might slap someone or put them in their place with a few harsh words. Perhaps it would be better if women reacted more strongly."
Now the drama being played out in a New York courtroom is finally lifting the lid on France's cesspit of sleaze. Just weeks after Strauss-Kahn's arrest, junior minister Georges Tron has been forced to fight allegations of sexual harassment of two female staff members. One of the alleged victims says the case convinced her to come forward.
An inquiry has also been opened by prosecutors into accusations that another former minister engaged in acts of paedophilia in Morocco.
The French political classes and the media have generally turned a blind eye to the sex lives of the elite. This has been aided and abetted by the country's almost unwavering respect for privacy and a loathing of what it sees as puritanical Anglo-Saxon squeamishness when it comes to sex.
However, the momentum behind the revelations has led Chantal Brunel, a member of the ruling UMP party and spokeswoman for France's observatory on sexual equality, to believe "the Strauss-Kahn affair is going to change a lot of things".
Now with France's first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy backing the condemnation of the sexist comments that followed the arrest of the former IMF chief, centuries of chauvinistic behaviour could be set to change.
"I think that there are a lot of (male politicians) who must be a touch stressed right now," said Rachida Dati, the former justice minister.
Indeed, with only 10% of the 75,000 rapes each year in France reported to police and a woman dying every three days as a result of domestic violence, French women are hoping it's a case of vive la revolution.