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Cherchez la Femme

French women are starting to speak up.

May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By ANNE-ELISABETH MOUTET
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Now, as more women came out of the woodwork with DSK stories, and his defenders and spin doctors tried to brush these new accusers off as opportunists, it emerged that they had, in fact, mentioned Strauss-Kahn’s unpleasant, sometimes downright violent, advances, as early as the mid-2000s, to no interest whatsoever. The writer Tristane Banon, who told of going to interview DSK and having her bra torn off and jeans pushed down while she kicked back; the respected Socialist MP Aurélie Filipetti, who famously said she would always take care never to find herself alone in a room with DSK, had both been dismissed, not as liars but as unsophisticated pests.

This was the last straw for many. Thursday night, Hélène Jouan, newsmagazines editor in chief at France Inter, the country’s answer to NPR, broke into the cozy apologies of a panel of male editors on a prime time special on France 2, the national TV network, to accuse the entire male-dominated French political class of a quasi-harassment culture in which politicians view women journalists as “available”—making it possible to turn a blind eye to early warning signs of the DSK disaster.

She told of incessant text messages; of politicians on the campaign trail knocking insistently on her hotel door at night. “It never happened with DSK,” she said, “and of course it wasn’t assault or anything like it; but at the beginning of my career it was so heavy that I almost gave up journalism.” 

This sounded horribly familiar. I, too, have clear memories from a couple of decades ago of this Gaullist mayor calling me “my little honeyrabbit” one minute into our interview; and of that Socialist Paris councilman offering to drive me home since I lived in his constituency and “mistaking” my knee for the stick shift at every red light. I never felt really threatened—and I would argue that learning how to fend off advances like these without getting hysterical is a valuable skill—but I was glad to be saved from the domestic politics beat by the Italian Red Brigades, which I started being sent to cover in Rome.

You could tell from the stony faces of the other France 2 panel members that Jouan’s account didn’t come as a complete surprise. Not much, in fact, about the DSK news has come as a surprise to the French media and political classes, except that he got caught; and that’s what the public is beginning to cotton on to. “They” knew, but “they” decided to hide behind the convenient pieties of French vaunted sophistication and tolerance, of respect for privacy—so much better, my dear, than the Anglo-Saxons’ tabloid culture. “Reporting stops at the bedroom door,” the editor in chief of Le Canard enchaîné, the satirical and investigative weekly, famously intoned in the 1970s. As it happens, that particular editor himself led at the time what we’ll euphemistically call a complicated private life. More than one correspondent felt that Le Canard’s “ethical” rule, become bylaw for the whole of the French press, amounted to little more than a drawing of lines between the hunters and their prey.

The DSK thunderbolt may well change all this. It will become increasingly difficult in the future for the media not to report on politicians’ and top bosses’ excesses the way they do on Hollywood—and for judges not to permit the defense, if privacy laws are invoked, that it was in the public interest. No wonder the pundits look gloomy these days: They and their politician friends can hear the tumbrils rolling across the cobblestones. Their cozy lives may never be the same again.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a regular columnist for the London Telegraph and a commentator for the BBC.

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