Has the DSK Affair Changed the French Workplace Forever?

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Francois Guillot / EPA

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former International Monetary Fund chief, is interviewed by French TV station TF1 on Sept. 18, 2011

This post is in partnership with Worldcrunch, a new global-news site that translates stories of note in foreign languages into English. The article below was originally published in Le Monde.

PARIS — Never mind that all charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn were dropped by the Manhattan district attorney. In France, people still want to know why, on May 14, DSK was arrested on allegations of rape in the first place. The case had an immediate impact on France's political landscape. But it has also deeply transformed relations between men and women, especially in the workplace, where the majority of positions of power continue to be occupied by men.

"It's very clear that even now, after the initial shock [of the arrest] has faded, the DSK affair has marked a before-and-after point for workplace relations," says Anne-Françoise Chaperon, a clinical psychologist and consultant for the firm Stimulus.

The change first surfaced as a form of humor. DSK jokes replaced one-liners about Jews and blondes. In the narrow corridor of a large media firm, the boss hesitates to skim past an employee busy with the copy machine. "Whatever you do, don't move. I'm right behind you," he says.

Alexia Laroche-Joubert, the head of an audiovisual-production company called ALJ Productions, puts it more bluntly. "Since the DSK scandal, whenever I slap my associate's butt, I make sure to ask him if he's going to sue me!"

But while the DSK affair may provide good fodder for jokes, it has also led to some serious discussions about sexual harassment and abuse of power in the workplace, issues that had long been a concern in French offices yet were nevertheless taboo.

Now, from the world of finance to the industrial sphere, women have started going public with stories about what happened that one time in the elevator or in the office when they were alone with a superior. The DSK case set things in motion. "It gave women the freedom to speak," says Patricia Barbizet, CEO of Artemis.

Even the head of the French MEDEF employers' union, Laurence Parisot, got to talk about it with her colleagues. About how a superior whom their career depended on started harassing them, about how they didn't know how they should reply. About the many offenses women must endure when they start venturing into men's territory: the workplace.

Job Interviews over Dinner
Parisot, the so-called boss of bosses, took the opportunity to tell her co-workers about her first job interview. "The secretary of my future boss had called to tell me the interview wouldn't take place at the office, but at a restaurant. There, [the interviewer] hit on me all evening long. That's not normal."

Even though it's been a half-century since the French women's liberation movement got started, "society is still very archaic when it comes to male-female relationships," says Dominique Senequier, the woman at the head of AXA Private Equity, a private-equity firm with $25 billion of assets. According to Senequier, men still feel the exact same need to put down women. The AXA Private Equity boss jokes about her double handicap: being both a woman and French. She can still remember the quips she overheard as she was giving a presentation. "She's not doing too badly for a woman," she heard a French executive say. An English-speaking colleague chipped in: "You mean she's not too bad for a French person."

For Parisot, such misogynist remarks represent the worst kind of discrimination. "There's not a single woman at the head of a top French company, even though there are so many women who graduate from the best schools with flying colors," she says angrily. Parisot recalls that in 2005 she tried to introduce a "soft" — i.e., nonbinding — gender-equality law. "Some executives, not all of them, told me they were against it. Why? Because there weren't enough competent women."

If the DSK case triggered a wave of feminism among women, for men, it has provoked real confusion. "Suddenly, I found myself thinking, 'What if the way I open the car door is misinterpreted?' My whole behavior could be seen as condescending," one businessman confesses.

Perhaps the most disoriented are DSK's senior male peers — rich and powerful men in their 60s who, until the May 14 arrest, had never had their words and gestures openly questioned.

According to Artemis' Barbizet, the affair has established a "natural frontier" between people in their 30s and 40s, "who have lived, men and women, in the same world from an early age," and senior employees, "who have never really had the opportunity to question their behavior so far."

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