Earlier this month, France woke to the astonishing news that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF, Socialist Party luminary and touted saviour of the Left in next year’s presidential elections, had been arrested in New York on s-xual assault charges. Italian friends here in Paris revelled in the welcome distraction from Berlusconi’s antics.
At the office the morning after, we spoke of little else. At this early stage, the lines were drawn between those convinced it was a rightist plot to destroy DSK’s presidential aspirations, and those who wondered: why did he apparently flee, leaving his phone behind?
Then a colleague showed us a clip from a 2007 talk show in which a young writer, Tristane Banon, alleged that DSK (whose name was censored when the show was broadcast) tried to rape her when she interviewed him in 2002. She claims he lured her to a sparsely furnished apartment. When she turned on her dictaphone, he allegedly took her hand and worked his way up her arm. She says she stopped and made it clear to him that she wasn’t interested.
"It ended very, very violently," she says, claiming they ended up fighting on the floor, she kicking him as he unclipped her bra and tried to undo her jeans. (At this point, host Thierry Ardisson exclaims with relish, "Oh, I love it!") Banon claims she saw a lawyer who already had a thick file on DSK, but didn’t dare press charges because "I didn’t want to be for the rest of my life the girl who had a problem with a politician."
At one point, unprompted, Banon recalls: "I had on a black turtleneck sweater; OK, maybe that drives guys crazy, but you have to know when to stop…" It is striking that even as she describes being lured into a set-up, she feels the need to point out that she wasn’t provocatively dressed.
Banon’s mother, Socialist politician Anne Mansouret, confirmed Tristane’s story, expressing regret that she had persuaded her daughter not to press charges at the time. The situation was "delicate," she said, for family and social reasons (DSK was a family friend), and though she believed her daughter she felt then that DSK’s alleged actions were out of character. Banon was just starting out in journalism and her mother feared it would damage her career. Mansouret’s own career may have had something to do with it: in a 2008 interview, Banon said she hadn’t pressed charges partly because it would cause problems for her mother.
Amid all the clichés that are being bandied about — the Gallic culture of seduction, Anglo-Saxon puritanism — Mansouret’s justifications give a sobering insight into the complex dilemma faced by many s-xual assault victims, in any culture, particularly those who knew their attacker beforehand. What will happen to my relationships if I press charges? To my family and my career? To the perpetrator’s innocent family? Will people believe me, or blame me? Will I always be, as Mansouret put it, "the girl who…"? There are no easy answers: the social and emotional costs of pursuing justice remain a deterrent for many victims.
Since DSK’s arrest, numerous unproven stories about rough dealings with women have surfaced, or indeed re-surfaced. See, for example, here and here. Writing in Libération on 17 May, Jean Quatremer, the journalist who was the first to suggest in a 2007 blog post that Strauss-Kahn’s relations with women would be "the only real problem" for him as IMF head, alleged that DSK’s predatory behaviour was an open secret in media and political circles: "Women who wanted to avoid problems knew it was better to avoid finding themselves alone with him".
If this is true, it would raise the question: why was this man protected for so long? The issue is more complex than the much-vaunted French "code of silence" surrounding politicians’ private lives — there is a gulf, after all, between consensual peccadilloes and criminal s-xual harassment or assault.
The real problem may be one that is all too common in families, institutions and communities where abuse occurs: a failure to recognise s-xually predatory behaviour for what it is or understand how predators manipulate their social environment to abuse positions of trust and power, and the enormous obstacles victims face in speaking out.
If the allegations against Strauss Kahn are vindicated, it will give pause to reflect on many of our assumptions about s-xual assault. There is something almost counter-intuitive about the idea that a powerful man could get away with harassing or even assaulting the relatively privileged women in his milieu, to be brought down only after trying it on with a vulnerable, immigrant chamber maid.
DSK’s arrest is a "coup de tonnere", a thunderbolt, as Socialist leader Martine Aubry put it, its timing throwing French politics into disarray. It also comes less than a month after France began enforcing a ban on Muslim face veils in public because, according to President Sarkozy, they are a symbol of "subjugation," damaging "the dignity of women".
The burqa is easily targeted as a symbol of male power: comfortingly alien, so far removed from our own practices that we can congratulate ourselves on our relative enlightenment. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Strauss-Kahn affair, it is a timely reminder that issues of power, domination and the status of women are infinitely subtle and complex, and often uncomfortably close to home.
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