The resentment indeed, the rage was a long time in coming. Yet no one in France was quite prepared for the wave of female anger that crested and broke in the wake of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest in New York City for the alleged sexual assault and attempted rape of a Sofitel hotel housekeeper. "It's a turning point," says Françoise Gaspard, a prominent sociologist and former politician who has for decades specialized in the study of gender and power in France. "People are saying things that were unthinkable 10 or 15 years ago. This is completely new."
The cause of insult wasn't Strauss-Kahn's purported actions; as everyone in France these days hastens to say, the former Finance Minister and, until very recently, leading contender for the 2012 French presidential elections hasn't been proved guilty. It was, rather, the way many key figures in France's intellectual and political elite instantly, reflexively converged to protect him and, very often, to minimize, cast doubt upon or even ignore entirely the plight of the immigrant single mother from Guinea who'd accused him. "We don't know what happened in New York last Saturday, but we do know what happened in France in the last week," begins a petition drafted by a consortium of feminist groups that has gathered 25,000 signatures. The petition goes on to denounce not just sexual violence against women but also the "daily wave of misogynous commentary coming from public figures," the "anthology of sexist remarks" on the French airwaves and the Internet, and the "lightning-fast rise to the surface of sexist and reactionary reflexes" among the leading French figures defending Strauss-Kahn. A makeshift anti-sexism rally thrown together in a mere 24 hours drew big crowds, mostly young women, many bearing signs with catchy slogans such as "Men play, women pay" and "we are all chambermaids."
The show of anger forced the political and media elite to quickly change their tone. At the beginning of the DSK news cycle, his prominent defenders were protesting that he had been victimized by the U.S. justice system and media. By the time Strauss-Kahn made it out of Rikers Island and began his odyssey to find a place to call home while under house arrest in New York City, they were vigorously backtracking. Two of Strauss-Kahn's most influential friends apologized for their insensitivity: the journalist Jean-François Kahn, for having said the Sofitel affair was just a matter of "lifting a maid's skirt," and Jack Lang, a former government minister and longtime professed friend of women, who said, "It's not like anybody died." Ségolène Royal, the 2007 Socialist candidate for President, first expressed sympathy and "respect" for "the man going through this ordeal" but not a word about the alleged victim; eventually, watching the winds change, she signed the anti-sexism petition. (So, too, did First Lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.)
Feminist commentary some written by men started to appear in France's mainstream publications. The rally, which 10 years earlier would have provoked snickering coverage in the national press, was given respectful, if somewhat muted, attention. Women reporters started sharing their own stories of harassment and even assault by powerful men. Soon there was talk that feminist issues things like sexual violence, unequal pay and the ubiquity of "everyday sexism," as a popular website founded to gather tales of random daily indignities put it could figure prominently in the 2012 presidential campaign. Roselyne Bachelot, France's Minister of Solidarity and Social Cohesion, invited feminist leaders to meet with her to talk about how the government could help move their cause forward.
For French women, this could be the end of an era in which talking too forcefully about inequities between men and women has been rejected as too old-school, too angry, too American. French feminists have struggled for decades to walk the line between their goal of female empowerment and the cultural mandate of seduction, to stake out a position of Gallic exceptionalism that would essentially allow women to have it both ways. "At some point," says Chris Blache, a spokeswoman for the feminist group La Barbe, "women came to feel that life wasn't too bad, many things had been gained since the 1970s and we didn't need to fight anymore."
But French women never really were successful in having their cake and eating it too. Generous family policies aimed at both promoting fertility and allowing women to balance work and family have had the perverse effect of reinforcing age-old gender stereotypes, as employers proved unwilling to hire women of childbearing age on the grounds that they'd take too many costly and disruptive maternity leaves. The blurring of the line between flirtation and predation led to a pervasive culture of "sacred machismo," says Olivia Cattan, founder of the feminist organization Paroles de Femmes. "The limits have not been defined between libertinage and harassment in France." And the shared fealty to a "grownup" respect for private life, the code of silence surrounding the sexual indiscretions of powerful public figures in particular, created a climate that strongly discouraged women from speaking out if they were harmed.
According to sociologist Gaspard, the current upsurge of feminist activism has been driven in large part by a new generation: young women (and perhaps some young men too) raised on the promise of equality who have grown angry when reality hasn't met their expectations. And this new blood has revitalized a movement that in many ways, ever since the 1949 publication of Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, has struggled to move beyond the theoretical, intellectual sphere and unite women in a sense of shared experience. "It's now practical. They're dealing with immediate, and insupportable, sexism," Gaspard says.
French women have plenty of practical matters to be angry about. A much heralded 2001 "parity" law that required political parties to offer voters equal numbers of male and female candidates has had little effect at the highest levels of elected office as parties have time and again preferred to pay fines rather than run sufficient numbers of women. Repeated legislative efforts to promote pay equality have borne little fruit. After a period of some improvement in the 1970s and 1980s, wage inequality between men and women has persisted or even worsened over the past 15 years; women's earnings are still, on average, about 20% lower than men's. The trend toward workplace flexibility of the past 10 years has tended to push women disproportionately into unstable and low-paid part-time positions.
"Finally, women found out that nothing had changed," Blache says. "Appearances have changed, but life, work, men not helping out more in the household none of this actually had. We felt we had made gains and those gains were gone or going. Things were starting to boil over." Whether women's issues remain front and center remains to be seen, but what's already clear is that the dialogue about gender relations in France has been forever altered.