The Turning Point

Finally, French women start a conversation about inappropriate sexual conduct

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The scandal is forcing French women to re-evaluate the behavior of their male coworkers

France is having its Anita Hill moment. When the law professor testified before a Senate committee in 1991 that her former boss Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, he denied everything and was elevated to the Supreme Court. But the hearings were a turning point. Women suddenly said that the Mad Men style of behavior they had put up with for so long at work — the leering, the inappropriate touching, the sexual banter — was not acceptable. Men were clueless as to why it mattered, but legislatures expanded laws about sexual harassment, and businesses began enforcing strict codes of conduct covering sexual relations in the workplace.

France, where powerful men have traditionally treated sex as a right and used it as a weapon, is now embroiled in its own battle of the sexes, involving a powerful man who could have been President and a single mother who works as a hotel maid.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has denied the charges against him, of course. But suddenly some French women have begun to speak out about an atmosphere that condones sexual conduct that crosses the line and may even be criminal. "In France, if you complain about this kind of behavior, you are branded a troublemaker and a puritan who is not at all seductive or attractive," says Nicole Bacharan, a political scientist. "Finally, women are talking about what has happened to them and their girlfriends, about what is harassment and when you should complain."

The conversation will be long and torturous. The French tend to blur the line between what is acceptable — and even desirable — in the workplace and what is not. For them, flirtation, and much that is forbidden in post–Anita Hill America, is part of ordinary interaction. U.S. bosses are told they have gone too far when they compliment female employees on the color of their clothes or the style of their hair. In France such remarks are expected. French women, indeed, have traditionally colluded with the opposite sex in an environment in which sexuality is ever present. They use seduction "as a weapon to defend themselves against the machismo of men," says Marie-France de Chabaneix, the founder of a dietary and cosmetics company. Whenever rumors of Strauss-Kahn's sexual behavior have surfaced, his wife Anne Sinclair, one of France's most respected TV journalists, has publicly defended him — as she has this time. Once, asked if she suffered because of her husband's reputation as a seducer, she answered, "No, if anything I am rather proud! It's important for a man in politics to be able to seduce. As long as I seduce him and he seduces me, it is enough."

For all its high-profile women in government and business, France is still a male-dominated society. (Women's salaries are about 20% less than men's; fewer than 20% of the deputies in Parliament are women.) And as in the Anita Hill case, there are supporters of Strauss-Kahn who insist that he is a victim of false accusations. "Do you think for a second we would be friends if I thought that DSK was a compulsive rapist, a Neanderthal man, a type who conducts himself like a sexual predator with the women he meets?" the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy said on France Inter radio on May 17.

But as the story unfolds, attention has begun to shift away from whether Strauss-Kahn was set up — and the supposed brutality of the U.S. justice system for showing him in public wearing handcuffs while denying him the right to shave or put on a tie for his arraignment. Increasingly, there is more compassion for the hotel maid as the real victim in the affair. "When we talk about this case, we must mention that there is an alleged victim," Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet told the website of the newspaper Le Figaro. Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry called for a show of "respect" for the hotel worker.

The new mood may have its limits. Nobody is suggesting that France adopt U.S.-style investigations into what goes on in every bedroom of the powerful. But activists are calling for the taboo on the discussion of rape to be lifted, and feminists are demanding training in how to handle sexual harassment in the workplace. "This affair might not change laws, but it may change attitudes," says Bacharan. "To hear all these men saying, 'Ah, he is so seductive and just loves women ...' Give me a break. This is not 'Ah, we French love food and women.' We are not pieces of chocolate."

Sciolino's latest book, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, will be published in June