In “Post-DSK” France, Minister Falls To Accusations of Sexual Harassment

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Is the downfall of former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn amid charges of attempted rape in the U.S. inspiring women in France to denounce the sexual coercion and aggression they’ve suffered from men for so long? The resignation Sunday of a French government minister accused of sexually harassing and assaulting two women would suggest that some sort of behavior revolution in France is indeed underway—and that more of the same is probably on the way. But because the habit of men (especially powerful ones) acting badly towards women has been so common and unchecked in France, some observers are already warning that if the budding offensive by French women to call out predatory males unfolds too rapidly, it could produce a backlash seeking to safeguard the abusive status quo.

On Sunday, junior civil service minister Georges Tron resigned his cabinet post six days after the first of two women who worked for the suburban Paris city Tron is mayor of filed suit against him for sexual harassment. Though Tron, 53, has emphatically denied the  charges that he sexually attacked his accusers between 2007 and 2010, he stepped down Sunday vowing to prove his innocence. But other pressures were clearly at work in his departure. Given his earlier pledge to retain his post in the face of the allegations unless either President Nicolas Sarkozy or Prime Minister François Fillon asked him to leave, Tron’s resignation made it clear ruling conservatives felt forced to distance the government from such a high-profile sex scandal—and possible crime. As such, the move starkly contrasted the defiance with which Sarkozy long stood by cabinet members rocked by earlier scandals. Tron’s speedy ouster, then, can probably be scored as the first victory of harassed women in what’s now being called “post-DSK” French society.Like Strauss-Kahn, Tron should be considered innocent until proven guilty. But like Strauss-Kahn, there are indications from legal officials that the charges being leveled at Tron are serious. “If the facts alleged are established, they could come under the headings of sexual aggression and rape.” said French prosecutor Marie-Suzanne Le Queau. Based on the charges and corroborating accusations from the two women, an official preliminary inquiry has been launched to determine if a full investigation and possible court case is merited.

None of that establishes Tron as any more guilty at this point than Strauss-Kahn is. Still,  the frequency and impunity with which men have sexually pressured and badgered women in France for decades has made presumption of innocence something of a luxury now that accusations of sexual misconduct or assault against male VIPs have finally come under the media glare.  As Judith Warner notes in a recent Time essay, many women in France have responded to the Strauss-Kahn case—and the many (mostly male) voices that rang out to defend DSK by rejecting or minimizing the accusations of the victim—as an opportunity to force attention to the long hushed-up problem of sexual misconduct once and for all. Guilt or innocence in the DSK case is, of course, very important to establish on its own. But it seems even more urgent now for many French women to use it as an occasion to denounce male-dominated gender relations that make sexual aggression against women in France so common and tolerated—and which often condition both male perpetrators and their victims to think not much can be done about it.

“When I see that a little chambermaid is capable of taking on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, I tell myself I don’t have the right to stay silent,” one of Tron’s unnamed accusers told the daily le Parisien last week, describing why she decided to follow the example of the Sofitel maid and level her accusations against the powerful man she says attacked her. “Other women may be suffering what I suffered. I have to help them. We have to break this code of silence.”

On the political level, the allegations against Tron have dashed conservative hopes of using Strauss-Kahn’s NYC rape charges (and wider, notorious reputation as a relentless womanizer) to establish some sort of moral high ground over rival Socialists ahead of next year’s general elections. But more significantly, the view that the claims against Tron were so damning—in light of “post-DSK” French sensibilities about sexual assault–that his ouster from the government had become urgent reflects deep changes in French attitudes towards gender relations, male behavior, and women’s right. And those, as Warner also notes in her essay, will outlive the current news cycle.

French women who say they’ve been victims of sexual assault—no matter how powerful or insignificant their attacker is—will no longer be brushed off or intimidated into silence. Neither will they be inclined to slink away from the French men they’ve accused of abuse, and who often seek to publicly turn the tables with the mocking rejoinder, “She’s taking her fantasies for reality”.

“Finished are the behind-the-scenes pressuring, the covering up, and the silence: from now on, complaints will be registered and taken seriously,” Libération editor Nicolas Demorand writes in his Monday editorial, referring to post-DSK (and Tron) France. “Now that voices have been freed, and the ceiling of glass and shame has been bashed in, other scandals may now arise.”

May? On May 24, as she reacted to publication of the charges against Tron, conservative politician and former Justice Minister Rachida Dati suggested that if all victims of male sexual misconduct were to speak up, France’s entire male political class would be decimated. “I think there are a lot of (male politicians) who must be a bit stressed out right now,” Dati said on TV channel Canal Plus. “A lot of them are looking down at their shoes and saying they really hope attention turns to something else soon.”

Which is where the danger of a male blow-back lies. Though most French men who initially rushed to DSK’s defense have been forced to moderate their comments by the indignant response their original positions provoked, there is some fear old attitudes might surge anew in the face of multiplying accusation of sexual assault. Too many men even in “post-DSK” France have too much to lose if every woman they ever seduced, cajoled, pressured or forced into having sex were now to step up with their stories.

“I’m a little bit worried that after this imposed period of improved behavior by men towards women there may be a backlash of men saying enough is enough, and returning to bad old habits,” Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette, political editor of the weekly Le Point, told France Info radio Monday. While urging all women victims of sexual crimes or gross misconduct to take their cases to police, Pierre-Brossolette suggested attempts to settle all past scores could prove counter-productive. Even a limited number of DSK- and Tron-like cases she said, would go a long way toward modifying the behavior of males across France from here out.

“Just the threat of suits being filed in this new environment would be enough to cool off most of these kinds of men,” she noted. “And I hope any women confronted by this kind of terrible sexual pressure from now on will file suit.”