New Internationalist

A second French Revolution?

Long ago, probably about 25 years ago, young and naïve, I was shocked by a feminist friend. ‘Most men keep their brains where their balls are’, she erupted. ‘That sounds remarkably like the female version of a male chauvinist pig,’ I countered, ‘You can’t generalize like that, it’s unfair to stereotype.’

Reading the sordid headlines of the DSK (Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former IMF boss)  saga, I was reminded of my angry feminist friend. Twenty five years down the line, I’m less naïve, slightly cynical. I think she was right about a lot of men. Probably the majority even.

Photo by Ken Banks under a CC licence.

The Clinton-Lewinsky trial had people riveted to their TV screens. But while women were universally disgusted, you could sense that lots of men thought, ‘lucky bastard’. Certainly, I remember more smirks, smiles and shrugs from male colleagues than serious condemnation of Clinton’s escapades. In Italy, the Italians, like the French, like to think of themselves as more sophisticated and more sexually suave than the Americans. They take pride in being pragmatic about their presidents. They obviously don’t expect a lot. The American sin, according to many Europeans, is they are Puritans when it comes to sex and their politicians. Or the sexual peccadilloes of any men, for that matter.

At a party in Tuscany, I was slightly bemused by the Italian attitude. ‘Are these Americans crazy?’ a Tuscan male enquired theatrically, of his audience at large. ‘They want a President or they want a Pope?’ Il Papa, actually. When put like that, together with the stereotypical Italian swagger, accent, hands gesticulating generously ‘n all, it sounded funny. But when you analyze it, what’s so funny about a middle-aged man/senior citizen trying to screw a woman his daughter’s age? Yet, that doesn’t really make most men angry unless you ask them if they’d like to see their daughter screwing a man old enough to be her dad. It’s mainly women who get mad.

And why? There’s a collective anger, a simmering rage in most women – and it breaks to the surface periodically. Because women have had to deal with sexual aggression, innuendo, perversion, physical assaults and sexual insults all through the ages. Rape is the ultimate sexual crime. But almost every woman has experienced disgusting sexual behavior in the work place, at parties, in public transport, on the street or even within our families. We have had to deal with its trivialization by society at large and men in particular. That’s what makes us go ballistic.

Unknown artist: gallery of women. Photo by Paul Keller under a CC licence.

While the French have always tried to pose as superior about sexual tolerance, or indeed sexual everything, how do French women feel about l’affaire DSK? Media reports repeatedly insist that 57 per cent of France is behind DSK. The French believe, we are told, that he was framed. While statistics and polls can easily be manipulated, supposedly serious journalists, mostly Frenchmen, have waxed eloquent about ‘poor DSK.’ Or even worse: ‘Why are these Americans making such a fuss about some mere maid, mon dieu!’

As I write this, hundreds of French women are signing an online petition pledging to support the African woman’s quest for justice. The anger is palpable. The message is clear. They, the women of France, have had enough.

I do not believe in condemning a person before they are found guilty. But trial by media is ugly and unfair. There are conspiracy theories galore. Some of them to do with DSK’s supposedly socialist baggage within the IMF. That’s another story. There are all kinds of angles to this case. Most have been explored. The rich white man, poor black woman tussle. The colonial history angle. Race, colour, money, power, privilege, élite versus underclass, gender. It’s all there.

But I find the can of worms opened in France particularly intriguing. The French media – male dominated – have dismissed all previous DSK sexual assaults (legendary, commonplace and common knowledge, the rest of the world now discovers) almost as mere eccentricities of a great and glorious son of France. Apparently, for French politicians, being labeled playboy, conqueror, grabbing women and patting posteriors uninvited, is permissible. It goes with the territory. Big boys who work hard must play hard too. That’s the unwritten rule. The French media do not chastise their playboy politicians. They protect them, they indulge them. They glamorize them.

The tone of emails, internet messages, tweets and blogs suggests that a lot of French women think differently. They are repulsed by the way male journalists have trivialized sexual assault and rape. By the way the men have closed ranks to protect one of their own.

It looks like even in laissez-faire France, the guillotine may fall once more. Perhaps the women of France are ready for a second revolution. Vive les feministes Francaises! And may justice prevail.

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