Martin: Strauss-Kahn Scandal

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(HOST)  The arrest of the Director of the International Monetary Fund for sexual assault of a New York chambermaid has caused heated debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Commentator Mike Martin wonders what we can learn from this international scandal.

(MARTIN)  The French King Henry IV had many mistresses and was one of France’s best-loved kings. Louis XVI, on the other hand, suffered from rumors that he was impotent and never quite earned his subjects’ respect – in fact, they eventually cut off his head with a guillotine. Some say that the French not only forgive their leaders for womanizing, but rather admire it as a sign of virility.

So when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French head of the International Monetary Fund and frontrunner in France’s upcoming presidential election, was arrested for sexual assault a few weeks ago, the French reaction was very different from our own. Many saw a new example of oppressive American Puritanism, just like the Starr Report that poked through the sordid details of President Bill Clinton’s sexual encounters. French journalists pride themselves on their discretion when it comes to politicians’ private lives; they see most political sex scandals as a trashy Anglo-Saxon tabloid addiction.

But in the wake of the Strauss-Kahn scandal, the discussion in France is changing. While many insist that Strauss-Kahn is innocent until proven guilty, some French feminists are warning against the blame-the-victim defense his lawyers will surely use, and protest that this approach is still way too widespread. And while many French objected to the fact that Strauss-Kahn was treated like a common criminal with his "perp walk" and overnight at Ryker’s Island, it’s made some wonder if French justice isn’t a little too genteel in its treatment of the rich and powerful.

Equally important, Strauss-Kahn’s indictment has given other women the courage to speak out. One young journalist – whose mother advised her to forget the incident at the time – described being attacked by Strauss-Kahn a few years ago as if he were a "chimpanzee in rut". And inspired by the brave hotel maid who reported Strauss-Kahn in New York, two French women have caused the resignation of French minister Georges Tron, who they say molested them when they were his subordinates.

While sex, money, and politics will probably always make a mess when they intersect, the Strauss-Kahn scandal does give us a few clear lessons:

First, while cultural mores regarding seduction vary from culture to culture, seduction is not the same as rape. In fact, they should never be mentioned in the same breath.

Next, while indictments in the U.S. justice system may lead to harsh and humiliating treatment before trial, the French system needs to ensure equality for all to prevent the powerful from acting with impunity.

And finally, France’s tolerance of le droit du cuissage, where female subordinates are expected to tolerate or accept their bosses sexual advances, must end. In the context of international organizations and multinationals, this exception française is outdated and uncivilized.

But most importantly, the spouses of important-men-behaving-badly need to stop excusing them. After all, when was the last time we saw a man standing in front of the cameras forgiving his wife and praising their family to protect her career?

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