French politicians face female fury over harassment, sexism

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.

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