News of the prosecution’s weakening sex assault case against former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn–and the consequential court decision Friday morning to lift his house arrest awaiting trial–have added a new jolt of drama to what already had been a sensational story followed closely on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet despite a general sense of relief in France that these developments may well allow Strauss-Kahn avoid trial, the majority of French commentators have adopted a moderate response that seems to reflect the sober view DSK is far from being in the clear. That’s probably smart thinking—and an encouraging sign of the wider human, social, and legal reflection the Strauss-Kahn scandal has given rise to in France. Because if New York prosecutors are now doubting the victim’s credibility—and feeling elements they uncovered in her life elsewhere make her too dodgy a witness to present to a jury—many French observers seem aware none of those potentially problematic discoveries directly challenge the woman’s claims Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her. Which is what the entire DSK legal drama is supposed to be about. In other words, failure to try the case wouldn’t necessarily mean the allegations were false—a consideration people battling sexual violence will probably note.
Indeed, it’s a point French feminists and their backers now denouncing frequently unreported sexual pressures and aggression against women will probably be making in the coming days to keep their conscious-raising efforts alive. Because while sexual abuse of women is of course a far larger problem than the DSK case, revelations about his own past behavior make him an iconic topic of debate nevertheless—court case or not. That’s a main reason why we may see French feminists soon step up and underline the fact that the central accusations against Strauss-Kahn in the New York case were apparently only indirectly weakened by doubts prosecutors began having about the victim outside of it. Ironically, if he U.S. justice system that defended a poor black woman accusing a famous, rich white man of sexual assault helped embolden French feminists to speak up about sexual violence at home, the eventual selling out of that same New York victim—and her claims—due to the cynical politics that dominate America’s legal system may inspire those same feminists to redirect attention to the fundamentals of that case as part of advancing their own cause.
Or, as the victim’s lawyer, Kenneth Thompson said after Friday morning’s court hearing, both he and his client stand by her accusations against Strauss-Kahn despite prosecutor’s second-guessing for other reasons, and they plan on pushing for the case to go all the way to a jury based on her story and evidence they say backs it up. If they do, they’ll probably get moral backing by French women who say they know what going up a system—and social attitudes—in denouncing male sexual violence is like.
The rough and tumble sparring over what now happens to DSK legally will not extend much beyond the limits of Manhattan. But back in France, the social and gender lessons of Friday’s development are already being noted. Early in the day, when Green Party leader Cécile Duflot was asked by France Info radio for her reaction to the news, she avoided the already surging media excitation and multiplying forecasts of what might come next by keeping firmly focused on what the case should be about. “I just want to see justice done,” Duflot said. “I want to see justice for the victim, and I want to see justice for Dominique Strauss-Kahn. That’s all.” Despite the soft delivery, her message was clear: forget all the theatrics, and focus on whether a crime against the victim took place–or not.
Advancing an even more pointed educational theme, former le Monde editor Jean-Marie Colombani warned in a slate.fr article that people shouldn’t lose sight of how the Strauss-Kahn case has made France re-think gender relations—even if the peculiarities of the American legal system had caused another thunderclap within it. “We mustn’t allow this reversal make us forget the essential,” wrote Colombani. “That is, it contributed to the realization that too much facility, too much inattention created a kind of enduring acceptance of behavior towards women in France that (constitutes) sexual harassment, and as such condemnable violence. That thread, that reality within the relations between men and women that much change, can not be lost.”
Similarly, commentator Daniel Schneiderman wrote on his @rret sur images site that no matter what surprises and twists the DSK case may present in the coming days, soul-searching provoked by the assault charges, revelations about Strauss-Kahn’s previous behavior, and wider debate about sexual aggression against women should not be forgotten or allowed to fade with each successive news development. “The examination of the national conscious, the deconstruction of habits and attitudes that we’ve come to terms with over the past six weeks—and which (the DSK case) acted as a detonator for…is a salutary and, one hopes, irreversible advance.”
And just hours before Friday’s stunning events, former Socialist minister of Women’s Rights, Yvette Roudy signed a blistering editorial in le Monde denouncing what she said was an entire social, legal, and political understanding that had allowed men to mistreat women in a kind of informal conspiracy that was rarely denounced—much less sanctioned—until the Strauss-Kahn case loosened lips. “The ‘DSK affair’, as it’s now being called, may well have the effect of immediately undermining a millennial omerta,” Roudy wrote, warning the Old Boys conniving is over. “The world has changed, and women with it.”
If so, one of the first signs of that may well be French women not being as quick to discount the New York victims claims as her erstwhile prosecution allies apparently have.