- - Sunday, June 26, 2011

PARIS — The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of attempted rape and sexual assault has prompted a massive debate over sexism and harassment by male politicians in France.

“There is very strong pressure to deny the problem entirely and turn against the women who dare complain,” said French Sports Minister Chantal Jouanno.

She said that when she recently tried to speak out on sexism and harassment issues at the National Assembly, other lawmakers hurled insults at her.

“Members of parliament claim that I am giving them a bad image,” she said. “I would be better off keeping quiet, but that would be irresponsible toward other women.”

The scandal involving Mr. Strauss-Kahn — former director of the International Monetary Fund and once a leading Socialist politician — has led to a series of revelations and rumors of sexual misconduct by male politicians.

Georges Tron, mayor of the Paris suburb of Draveil, resigned abruptly on May 29 after at least two women accused him of sexual assault. Last week, French police took him into custody for questioning.

Jacques Maheas, mayor of another Paris suburb, Neuilly-sur-Marne, is the target of a campaign by women’s advocacy groups that want him expelled from the Socialist Party. In March 2010, a court upheld his conviction of sexually assaulting a city employee. Mr. Maheas, also a member of the French Senate, was fined more than $14,000, but he retained his elected posts.

“We want politicians to be role models,” said feminist leader Gabrielle Apfelbaum. “What has changed is that today we are in a position to demand real answers on violence against women and full transparency from politicians on this matter.”

Eric Raoult, a conservative member of parliament, advises male politicians under intense pressure to find ways to work out their tension.

“Male members of parliament are now going through a process of self-criticism,” said Mr. Raoult, a former student of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s at the Institute of Political Science in Paris.

“If you don’t go jogging every morning, the adrenaline of power can be overwhelming … and so colleagues [of mine] have made mistakes,” he said.

Ms. Jouanno said sexism is no worse at the National Assembly than anywhere else in France, but “there should be less sexism [in parliament] than in the rest of society.”

A former karate champion, Ms. Jouanno said her fellow legislators used to whistle at her as she stood up to address the assembly.

“I was wearing a skirt,” she said. “It wasn’t mean, but this attitude doesn’t belong in parliament.”

Many male politicians still see nothing wrong with treating their female colleagues as desirable women.

Claude Gatignol, a conservative lawmaker, said it is natural for women to want to be elegant.

“A woman will never leave her house without taking care of her appearance, her makeup,” he said. “It is part of the feminine sphere, and it is normal that men should react to it.”

Meanwhile, some reporters vilified years ago for writing about Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s reputation for womanizing are feeling vindicated since Mr. Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York last month on charges of raping a hotel maid.

Jean Quatremer, a journalist at Liberation, said his newspaper now is taking the issue seriously and investigating older complaints against Mr. Strauss-Kahn that he discussed on his blog in 2007.

He said he has seen Mr. Strauss-Kahn on two occasions making advances on friends of his.

“His manner with women can be terribly humiliating to them,” he said. “I had a friend, a journalist, whom he called and sent text messages to day and night. It lasted for one year. I consider this sexual harassment.”

Christophe Deloire and Christopher Dubois faced threats of a lawsuit from Mr. Strauss-Kahn in 2006 over their book, “Sexus Politicus,” which included a chapter about him.

“We wrote a book about the impact of power, about the aphrodisiac effects of power,” Mr. Deloire said. “We were investigating this subject at a time when no one would talk about it.”

Anne Mansouret, a Socialist member of parliament, said she has been bombarded by offensive emails from party colleagues for speaking out over the Strauss-Kahn scandal.

“I have been accused of shooting down a dead horse,” she said. “But the women, all the women — and when I say all of them, I really mean all of them — knew that this man always thought about sex.”

Her daughter, writer Tristane Banon, who accused Mr. Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault in 2007, said she is considering filing charges against him after his trial in New York is over.

Aurelie Filippetti, another Socialist member of parliament, accused Mr. Strauss-Kahn of groping her in 2007.

“Ideally, victims [of sexual harassment and assault] should press charges, but it is not an easy thing to do,” she said. “A parliamentary assistant will not press charges against a member of parliament because, if she does, she will never be able to work at the National Assembly again. And it is the woman who is made to feel guilty because she is the one who is bringing it out in the open.”

She said she doubts that recent events will change things.

“Many statesmen have a feeling of impunity because they are powerful,” Ms. Filippetti said. “I also believe that they think of themselves as very attractive and imagine that women naturally fall into their arms.”

Meanwhile, the Strauss-Kahn affair has given impetus to women in all levels of society to come forward. A hotline for female sexual-assault victims has been swamped in recent weeks.

Ms. Jouanno said women who are victims of sexual harassment will not be taken seriously unless they continue to speak out.

“The code of silence must be broken,” she said.

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