Sexist French politicians take a beating after Strauss-Kahn affair

The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on attempted rape charges has been followed by the resignation of one of Sarkozy's ministers amid similar allegations. Will the macho, sexist world of French politics ever be the same again, asks Rory Mulholland

Sexist French politicians take a beating after Strauss-Kahn affair

Who will be next to fall? That’s the question on many French lips after one of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ministers resigned over rape accusations amid heated debate over the chronic machismo of Paris politics.

“What if the Georges Tron affair were the first in a long series of aftershocks that will follow the earthquake on May 14 in the Sofitel in Times Square?” wondered Liberation newspaper in an op-ed article.

Tron, who was Sarkozy’s civil service minister, resigned Sunday after a legal probe got under way into claims – which he denies – by two women that the foot massages he forced on them turned into sexual harassment and rape.

The resignation came two weeks after New York police arrested the International Monetary Fund’s then chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges that he tried to rape an African chambermaid in his Sofitel hotel suite.

Strauss-Kahn’s arrest shocked France and sparked anguished soul-searching about whether strict privacy laws and alleged media complicity let politicians, top businessmen and celebrities get away with unacceptable behaviour. 

Now Tron’s departure has sharpened the debate and sparked widespread speculation that more women are going to emerge to denounce sexually predatory politicians.

One of the women who accused Tron of sexual harassment and rape said last week she was encouraged to speak up after Strauss-Kahn’s sensational arrest.

“When I see that a chambermaid was capable of taking on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I tell myself I don’t have the right to stay silent,” said the woman, who was not identified by name.

The Journal du Dimanche newspaper wrote Sunday of a “before and an after DSK,” as Strauss-Kahn is popularly known in France.

If sexism and macho behaviour is widespread across French society, then it is particularly concentrated in the world of politics, said Caroline Ressot of the Observatoire de la Parité, a government body that promotes sexual equality.

French political parties have traditionally been indulgent about the sexual behaviour of their members, she said.

“There is a certain number of elected representatives – on both the left and the right – who have been convicted of sexual aggression and who have not been expelled from their parties, for example,” she told AFP.

Chantal Brunel, the head of the Observatoire and a member of parliament in Sarkozy’s UMP party, said she herself was often subjected to sexually “inappropriate” comments from a male colleague at the French parliament, but she declined to elaborate.

Monday’s Le Parisien newspaper however carried a report on one woman deputy – whom it did not name – who said she was regularly treated to remarks such as this one made just last week: “If you dress like that then don’t be surprised if you get raped.”

Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno has said she wears trousers when in parliament, where around 100 of the 577 deputies are women, because when she wore a skirt this sparked salacious remarks from male colleagues.

Socialist deputy Sandrine Mazetier said that at the National Assembly there “reigns a form of paternalism, an infantilization of women that I have never seen anywhere else.”

Most commentators and feminist groups agree that male politicians got away with such behaviour because female politicians, like ordinary Frenchwomen, feared they would not be taken seriously if they complained.

“In France in 2010 there were 10,100 registered rapes. But it’s estimated that only one rape victim in 10 will speak of her ordeal,” said Brunel.

But that era may well be coming to an end, she noted.   

“It’s as though the sky has fallen down on the heads of men,” she said, adding that “as regards violence towards women, the Strauss-Kahn affair changes a lot.”

“Few men in France believed that the head of the IMF could end up in prison (while awaiting trial) for a case of sexual aggression,” and this means that now there will be less tolerance “for men who cross the line,” said Brunel.

On Monday the French media was agog with speculation that a new era might be dawning in France.

Liberation summed up the mood, saying in an editorial that the recent high-profile sex scandals could sound the death knell for the “everyday machismo, the male domination, the phallocracy” that characterises French politics.

“From now on, charges can be pressed and be judged legitimate. Even in France,” it said.


Macron vs the unions: What happens next in France?

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing his biggest standoff with France's trade unions since coming to power in 2017, with the outcome of a series of strikes and protests seen as decisive for both sides.

Macron vs the unions: What happens next in France?

The 45-year-old leader has made raising the retirement age a signature domestic policy of his second term in office — something the unions and millions of protesters are determined to block.

After two days of nationwide strikes and demonstrations, AFP looks at what is likely to happen next on the streets, in parliament, inside the government, and in wider French public opinion.

On the streets

Labour leaders were delighted with their second day of protests on Tuesday, which they claimed had seen around 2.5 million people hit the streets, including in many small and medium-sized towns.

Official estimates put the figure at 1.27 million, compared to 1.1 million people during round one on January 19th, according to the interior ministry.

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

Momentum is clearly with the unions who announced two further days of protests and strikes next week, on Tuesday and Saturday.

“The movement is growing and spread across the whole country,” the head of the hard-left CGT union, Philippe Martinez, said on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, unions no longer have the ability to paralyse the country and working-from-home practices mean most white-collar workers can easily adjust to transport stoppages.

The biggest fear of authorities is a repeat of the 2018 so-called “Yellow Vest” protests — a spontaneous movement drawn mostly from the countryside and small-town France that led to shockingly violent clashes with police. 

“The trauma was so big and the violence so great, I don’t see it happening again for the moment,” Bruno Cautres from Sciences Po university in Paris told AFP earlier this month. 

In government 

The government was expecting a rough ride — few major policy changes happen in France without protests, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy faced similar resistance with his pension reform in 2010.

Macron has faced numerous challenges from the unions in the past and has always succeeded in pushing through his pro business agenda and social security reforms.

The only exception was his first attempt at pension reform — also highly contested — which he withdrew in 2020 during the Covid 19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has been the public face of the latest proposals, while Macron has kept his statements and appearances to a minimum, as is his habit.

But with the battle lines hardening and protests growing, the president might be forced to enter the fray. 

“I think the president will speak, but not right now,” a minister told AFP on condition of anonymity. “If he did it now, it would look like we’re panicking.”

In parliament

The draft legislation will be debated for the first time in the 577-seat National Assembly from Monday.

Macron’s allies are the largest group with 170 seats, but they do not hold a majority after a weaker-than-expected showing in June elections.

Support from the 62 rightwing Republicans (LR) party MPs will be essential.

LR has long supported raising the retirement age, but there are doubts over how many of their MPs will give the government their backing.

“I’m not asking the government to give in to the protests. This reform needs to be done,” LR parliamentary party chief Olivier Marleix said on Wednesday.

The lower house debate will finish on February 17th at the latest when a vote can be called — or the government could transfer it to the Senate or ram it through with controversial executive powers that dispense with the need for a ballot.

The bill is expected to pass the conservative-dominated Senate, where a vote is to take place by mid-March.

Public opinion

The latest polling figures show a growing majority opposes the reform and supports the protests, with roughly two in three people against the proposals.

Ministers have struggled to find winning arguments, at times arguing the changes are needed to reduce government spending, at others insisting they will make the pension system fairer.

“The government has not won with the argument that it is necessary,” Bernard Sananes, the head of the Elabe polling group, told AFP. “And it is fighting on another, more intense front which is that the reform is seen as unfair.”

In private, Macron’s allies insist their best hope is for parliament to quickly approve the legislation that will never be popular but might grudgingly be accepted as necessary.

“The question is how big the protest movement will be and how long it will last,” the minister told AFP.