French reaction to Strauss-Kahn case marks cultural shift

PARIS — Even if the sexual assault case against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is faltering, its repercussions in France are not. Many Parisians said Saturday that the allegations would remain in their heads no matter the legal outcome, and a country long tolerant of politicians with wandering eyes — and other body parts — is becoming less so.

In other words, French politics may soon look a bit more American.

Since May, when police officers pulled Strauss-Kahn off a Paris-bound plane and charged him with assaulting a housekeeper at a Manhattan hotel, the conversation in France has shifted from disbelief to shock to a sense that something needs to be done.

The changed climate has already had an effect on French politics. A junior government minister, Georges Tron, was pressured into resigning at the end of May after two women alleged that he had assaulted them, although he said he was innocent.

Several people said Saturday that it was the rape allegations, not the infidelity, that started to shift their opinions.

“The violence, that’s what shocked me,” said Olivier Boczek, 37, an architect who said that philandering was “vulgar, but it’s private. There are fewer taboos here. He had a reputation of a man who likes women.”

Journalists and politicians in France had long considered Strauss-Kahn a womanizer. But few here spoke of it publicly, even after he admitted to a 2008 affair with a Hungarian economist who was a subordinate at the International Monetary Fund. When they did, it tended to be with admiration or amusement, not concern. Even Strauss-Kahn’s wife, former broadcast journalist Anne Sinclair, said in 2006 that “for a political man, it is important to seduce.”

French journalists obeyed a culture of discretion so strong and venerable that former president Francois Mitterrand was able to have a long-standing mistress and a child without journalists writing about it until shortly before he retired.

That silence, many here say, was part of what enabled the encounter in room 2806 of the Manhattan Sofitel. Neither side disputes that a sexual encounter took place; at issue is whether it was consensual and whether it was violent. The accusations — which prosecutors said Friday were under threat because of doubts about the accuser’s credibility — have deeply affected France, where Strauss-Kahn was widely seen as the most powerful potential candidate against President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 election.

But the New York charges are not the only allegations of assault Strauss-Kahn could face. After legal proceedings started against Strauss-Kahn in May, French journalist Tristan Banon alleged that he had assaulted her in 2002. She could still file charges against him in France. At the time of the alleged assault, she said, her mother had pressured her into keeping quiet.

“An appalling confusion between ‘seducer’ and ‘violator’ was pushed over and over again by politicians and the media,” Francoise Heritier, an anthropologist, in Le Figaro Magazine, said Saturday. “I see with interest the beginning of an awareness” that philandering is no longer acceptable, she said.

Paris residents spoke of mixed feelings Saturday: a sense that attitudes were changing, but also a firm commitment to allowing private lives to remain private.

“In the future, French society will be more attentive to sexism and will try to avoid such attitudes,” said Julien Haroche, 41, a doctor who was relaxing Saturday at the Jardin du Luxembourg, one of Paris’s largest parks. “The overall feeling about such acts is going to change.”

Still, he said, “if he’s just having affairs, if he’s supported by his wife, that’s their problem” — not the public’s.

Others talked about the United States with a mixture of horror and admiration. The images of an unshaven, handcuffed Strauss-Kahn being taken into a police station was a “spectacle,” said Tamara Guerrero, 47, a homemaker. At the same time, she said, “there’s equality between high and low” in that Strauss-Kahn had been treated as an ordinary criminal, something she said would not have happened in France.

And she said that she admired Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. for admitting that there were problems with the case even as he pressed on with it, saying that it demonstrated a particularly American commitment to the truth.

Although some of Strauss-Kahn’s closest allies in the Socialist Party said Friday and Saturday that he could make a comeback, and even run for the presidency, others were more cautious about embracing him. Many voters here said that they would wait until the outcome of the case is clearer before making predictions about whether they would choose him in an election, although they did not rule him out entirely.

Strauss-Kahn’s political appeal among French leftists has also diminished over the past month and a half, with images of the luxury Tribeca townhouse where he had been staying regularly splashed across French television screens. On Friday night, his first of freedom after being released on personal recognizance, he and his wife went to a chic Upper East Side Italian restaurant where the bill, and the menu, were dissected on French news channels.

Correspondent Edward Cody contributed to this report.

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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