Dominique Strauss-Kahn has not been convicted of any crime. Neither would it be appropriate to indict French society the pervasive sexism parading as a celebration of "difference," the self-indulgence of the "caviar left," of which he is a prime exemplar for his (alleged) behavior. To do so, after all, would be to fall into the same facile trap as the various French commentators who, in the days since the International Monetary Fund chief's arrest in New York City for sexual assault and attempted rape, have fallen all over the case as an example of American sensationalism and, of course, classic "Puritanism."
The arrest of the "great seducer," as Strauss-Kahn is commonly known in France on shocking charges of notably unseductive behavior toward an immigrant single mother working as a hotel housekeeper didn't come entirely out of the blue for those who have closely observed his behavior toward women over the years. And that behavior has occurred in, and perhaps been encouraged by, a culture that takes a complacent, even complicit attitude toward inappropriate, sometimes predatory sexual action on the part of powerful men, normalizing it, even occasionally romanticizing it, under the catchall cliché of Gallic seduction.
Seduction is a ubiquitous word in French culture, used for everything from selling yogurt to flaunting the electric relations between the country's men and women (in contrast to our sexless Anglo-Saxon example) to marketing the prowess of politicians. That there could be a creepy side to that much vaunted ideal isn't all that surprising; after all, built into the very concept of seduction is the understanding that someone of lesser power and agency is being seduced. And indeed, over the years, as Strauss-Kahn's political star rose and he approached his own peak of power and political influence, climbing the ranks of the Socialist Party, serving as Finance Minister and, until this weekend, emerging as the most likely front runner for the 2012 presidential election, observers began to note a growing creepiness in his relationships with women.
In their 2006 book Sexus Politicus, authors Christophe Deloire and Christophe Dubois dedicate a whole chapter to Strauss-Kahn, in which they delicately relate the story of a young journalist who claimed that "DSK" had, in a private interview, shown himself to be "very enterprising, even unseemly, to the point where she thought of bringing charges." In 2007, when Strauss-Kahn's candidacy to be the managing director of the IMF was announced, the website Rue89 spoke of his "too pronounced" taste for women. Jean Quatremer, a reporter for the left-wing daily Libération, wrote in his blog at the time that Strauss-Kahn's "relationships to women" were a "real problem." "Too insistent ... his actions often border on harassment," Quatremer wrote. "A failing that everyone in the media knows about, but which no one talks about. (We are, after all, in France.)"
In France this week, the cataclysm of Strauss-Kahn's arrest brought the start of a much needed conversation about the virtue of maintaining this long-cherished code of silence. Tristane Banon, the aforementioned young female journalist, came forward to say that she was going to formally lodge a complaint against Strauss-Kahn. Her mother, Anne Mansouret, a Socialist regional counselor and friend of Strauss-Kahn's family, came forward to express her "regret" that she'd dissuaded her daughter from taking action in the past, for fear of breaking her family's important political and personal ties to the influential politician. Another female journalist spoke of the callousness of colleagues who routinely dismissed allegations by women about the predatory behavior of powerful men with talk of "She asked for it." She wrote, "The understanding is that the rapist isn't guilty but almost the victim of the woman who's a tease."
This message was drowned out by the much louder chorus of voices rising to declare Strauss-Kahn a victim. The corps of French journalists who have enjoyed the delicious privilege of keeping DSK's and other politicians' sexual peccadilloes to themselves appeared horrified by the fact that, in America, his accuser's name and face were kept hidden from public view while he himself was humiliatingly photographed in handcuffs and subjected to "pitiless media pressure," as Le Nouvel Observateur put it. "What do we know about the chambermaid?" read a suspicious headline in the respected daily Le Monde.
As Strauss-Kahn's case moves forward in New York, the particular form of French "exceptionalism" that holds that men will be men and women will be women and no amount of political correctness can or should temper their natural desires will be on trial too. Like it or not, Strauss-Kahn and his supporters now have to play by our rules. These don't stem from prudishness or Puritanism. They're based on respect, on updated understandings of male-female power relations and on a desire to change the nasty little systems of complicity that have long kept them flowing in one direction.
Judith Warner, a former contributing columnist to nytimes.com, is the author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety and We've Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication.