Who will be next to fall? That’s the question on many French lips after one of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ministers resigned over rape accusations amid heated debate over the chronic machismo of Paris politics.
“What if the Georges Tron affair were the first in a long series of aftershocks that will follow the earthquake on May 14 in the Sofitel in Times Square?” wondered Liberation newspaper in an op-ed article.
Tron, who was Sarkozy’s civil service minister, resigned Sunday after a legal probe got under way into claims – which he denies – by two women that the foot massages he forced on them turned into sexual harassment and rape.
The resignation came two weeks after New York police arrested the International Monetary Fund’s then chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges that he tried to rape an African chambermaid in his Sofitel hotel suite.
Strauss-Kahn’s arrest shocked France and sparked anguished soul-searching about whether strict privacy laws and alleged media complicity let politicians, top businessmen and celebrities get away with unacceptable behaviour.
Now Tron’s departure has sharpened the debate and sparked widespread speculation that more women are going to emerge to denounce sexually predatory politicians.
One of the women who accused Tron of sexual harassment and rape said last week she was encouraged to speak up after Strauss-Kahn’s sensational arrest.
“When I see that a chambermaid was capable of taking on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I tell myself I don’t have the right to stay silent,” said the woman, who was not identified by name.
The Journal du Dimanche newspaper wrote Sunday of a “before and an after DSK,” as Strauss-Kahn is popularly known in France.
If sexism and macho behaviour is widespread across French society, then it is particularly concentrated in the world of politics, said Caroline Ressot of the Observatoire de la Parité, a government body that promotes sexual equality.
French political parties have traditionally been indulgent about the sexual behaviour of their members, she said.
“There is a certain number of elected representatives – on both the left and the right – who have been convicted of sexual aggression and who have not been expelled from their parties, for example,” she told AFP.
Chantal Brunel, the head of the Observatoire and a member of parliament in Sarkozy’s UMP party, said she herself was often subjected to sexually “inappropriate” comments from a male colleague at the French parliament, but she declined to elaborate.
Monday’s Le Parisien newspaper however carried a report on one woman deputy – whom it did not name – who said she was regularly treated to remarks such as this one made just last week: “If you dress like that then don’t be surprised if you get raped.”
Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno has said she wears trousers when in parliament, where around 100 of the 577 deputies are women, because when she wore a skirt this sparked salacious remarks from male colleagues.
Socialist deputy Sandrine Mazetier said that at the National Assembly there “reigns a form of paternalism, an infantilization of women that I have never seen anywhere else.”
Most commentators and feminist groups agree that male politicians got away with such behaviour because female politicians, like ordinary Frenchwomen, feared they would not be taken seriously if they complained.
“In France in 2010 there were 10,100 registered rapes. But it’s estimated that only one rape victim in 10 will speak of her ordeal,” said Brunel.
But that era may well be coming to an end, she noted.
“It’s as though the sky has fallen down on the heads of men,” she said, adding that “as regards violence towards women, the Strauss-Kahn affair changes a lot.”
“Few men in France believed that the head of the IMF could end up in prison (while awaiting trial) for a case of sexual aggression,” and this means that now there will be less tolerance “for men who cross the line,” said Brunel.
On Monday the French media was agog with speculation that a new era might be dawning in France.
Liberation summed up the mood, saying in an editorial that the recent high-profile sex scandals could sound the death knell for the “everyday machismo, the male domination, the phallocracy” that characterises French politics.
“From now on, charges can be pressed and be judged legitimate. Even in France,” it said.