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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  1. #1 Grouch 26 May 11

    How is it immoral or reprehensible for a 50 year-old man to want to have sex with a 25 year-old woman, or for a 50 year-old woman to want to have sex with a 25 year-old man? Who are you to set rules such as ’adult men and women can have sex only if the age difference is less than 10, otherwise it's gross and nasty’?

    The problem with Clinton was not the age of the lady involved, it was the lying and the relationship in a context of subordination. If a person in a management position courts a subordinate, the boundary with harassment is soon crossed.

    The problem with DSK is not that the maid was young. It was that the act was (allegedly) not consensual.

    Whistling after a nice-looking woman is rude; patting her on the rear, uninvited, is reprehensible. Both, if repeated, constitute harassment.

    Please stop short of moralizing what consenting adults should do. Please focus on reprehensible acts like harassment, rape and other agressions.

  2. #2 lancb 26 May 11

    Hi, I am a french immigrant in Canada, we left France for good reasons, our last son was threaten to dead in public school, in a village! not in a big big town! We were members of the PS, full of unfair behaviours, we are not surprised by the DSK scandal and we thank America for its support of this lonely maid! Obviously DSK was using his power, BHL support is a shame, but look how many members of his tribe have a specific origin, I we are pro Semites and Zionist but scandalized by the incredible insulting attitude of french citizens manipulated, must of the time not really machos but so anti America that they prefer to forgive DSK and explain that it was a trap...
    we are also feminist and very surprised that France forgot its Droits de l'Homme, and leadership in social ethics.. We have lost France for ever, you too, Politicians are always hiding the truth about assaults, and bad behaviour... we have been victims in a way of their machism.
    If you are honest you have no politic future in such parties...
    I am sorry for my broken English, but I thanks again for the trial coming, which could not happen in France at all!
    remember you can help feminism in France , they will not vote for PS candidate if it is not Segolaine Royal, they will vote Marine to make a powerfull change and clean the backyard!
    But remember also the ancestral link we had , has friends in revolution.

  3. #3 Giedre 27 May 11

    @Grouch, I think you are being a bit unfair. I read the article once again and nowhere does the author sets rules for who can have sex and when, nor does she moralize on consenting adults.

    What she does say, however, is that too often cases like this one are normalized in the public mind - be it by male-dominated media or wider politics in general. The story is then reduced to the woman's (and most often it is the woman) background, motives and ’over-reaction’; the man is hailed as the sexy cowboy who takes what he wants because he can - if only the rest of us could have that power! And so the main point is brushed under the public carpet - that we're dealing, allegedly, with violence, sexual violence, and issues of power and control in our patriarchal hetero-normative society.

    You're right in saying that we should focus on ’reprehensible acts like harassment, rape and other aggressions’ - and I think that's exactly what Mari is saying here. She also discusses the division between the French society, division of attitudes and the way this whole affair is understood by men and by women, and why.

  4. #4 Bubly 27 May 11

    @Grouch It isn't immoral for a 50 year old man to WANT to have sex with a 25 year old but it is delusional if he/ she thinks the 25year old wants to have sex with him/her. For a 25 year old, 50 is old. Loose skin and an ageing body is not sexually attractive. Monica Lewinsky was attracted to the President of the US, not to Bill Clinton.
    Yes, the are many 'consenting' relationships between the old and the young but that's why they are given monikers like Trophy Wife and Arm Candy. Most are lays for pay!

  5. #5 Graeme 28 May 11

    I think that this article raises an important point about society in general and its perception and treatment of women. Although we have undoubtedly come a long way from 100 years ago when in Britain women could not even vote and the chances of meaningful employment were slim, there is still a long way to go before we come close to reaching gender equality in society. Although the overt evidence of sexual harassment is still very evident and completely reprehensible, it is also the covert attitude of society, the media and the workplace which continues in the degradation of women. Within the media there is a definite portrayal of gender stereotypes which can be clearly seen in the tabloid headlines on any given day (not to mention the page 3 models) and which only further serves to entrench opinion amongst the male population. Of course I am not saying that this is a reflection of all men and their attitudes as there are a number (me included, I hope!) who have genuine respect towards women and support them in their demands for equality.

    A final point I would like to mention, just in case people feel that gender inequality is overplayed, is the following statistic: only 5.5% of FTSE 100 directors are women and almost half of the FTSE 250 companies have no women on the board at all. That is a quite staggering statistic and one which to a varying extent can be seen across a range of sectors in society, e.g. 144 women MPs out of a total of 650. And so although some significant progress has been made towards equality, there is still a long way to go, and it helps to start by denouncing such actions of sexual harassment mentioned in Mari's blog as completely reprehensible.

  6. #6 mari 01 Jun 11

    Thanks everyone for the comments, Grouch I didnt mean to moralize and I agree that the problem was not being consensual. But i reread ny blog and i've asked a few friends what they think, Universally an old man with a young girl looks obscene. makes my skin crawl, other women too reported the same reaction. I've seen several old white men with girls young enough to be their grand daughters, from the Phillipines, Thailand. Those girls are there for the money, to escape poverty.
    very rarely will a girl go for a man old enough to be her father, and there you will normally find neediness of another type. And men going for women 20 years older, are mostly gigolos. There now I've said what most people feel but avoid saying because of political correctness.

  7. #7 Lucy H 03 Jun 11

    To me it's not a matter of moralising or setting rules on what age difference is acceptable and what isn't. It's a matter of abuse of power relationships and it's frightening that still, after all these years, an older, middle class, powerful man is able to abuse his position in the way that DSK did. It was the same with Bill Clinton, the same with Tiger Woods. the tragedy is that though the media generally labels these acts as a wrongdoing to the white, middle class wife who has been cheated on, they rarely refer to the plight of the often poor, powerless woman who has been used and abused.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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