The Null Device
The recent arrest of IMF boss Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for allegedly attempting to rape a hotel maid (some wags have commented that he apparently mistook her for a small, impoverished country) has highlighted the state of sexual relations in France, where men are roguishly masculine, women are seductively feminine, politicians are expected to have mistresses and affairs (and even sometimes second families, as was the case with Mitterrand), and feminism and gender equality are seen as something for gauche Anglo-Saxons and other lesser cultures not privy to the sophisticated rapprochement between Frenchmen and Frenchwomen:
In the hours and days that followed the arrest, a string of friends and Socialist allies stepped forward to defend a man they insisted could not have done such a thing. Jean-François Kahn, a well-known journalist, said he was "practically certain" that what had taken place had not been an attempted rape, but "an imprudence… the skirt-lifting of a domestic". Jack Lang, a former Socialist culture minister, wondered why, when "no man had died", Strauss-Kahn had not been released on bail immediately. Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, meanwhile, raged against a legal system that had treated DSK like "any other person". "Everybody," declared the philosopher, "is not everybody!"
"It feels like France is just beginning to wake up to the concept of sexual harassment," wrote the France-based British author Lucy Wadham on her blog last week, referring to the debate over the difference between seduction and the kind of "very heavy, very persistent" onslaught that Filipetti attributes to Strauss-Kahn. Criticising the rush to treat DSK as a victim, Wadham added: "Wilfully unreconstructed, France is a society in which women collude in a continued phallocracy."And while France may lead the world in areas from work-life balance to healthcare, in terms of the role of women, it seems to trail the Anglo-Saxon world (and let's not even mention Scandinavia here) by decades. One sometimes gets the impression that one is looking at Life On Mars with better wardrobe direction:
Simon Jackson, an English historian at Sciences Po, the elite political studies institute in Paris, shares the view that, in France, male attitudes to sex lag behind Britain in terms of equality. "I think that's in large part the product of serious and continuing deficits in the opportunities women enjoy professionally, educationally and socially in France, which is one of the least gender-equal countries in the EU." Figures for 2011 lay bare those deficits: women make up 18.5% of MPs and 85% of casual workers. In the gender pay gap survey released at Davos, France came 46th. Britain was 15th.Thankfully, this may soon be changing. Some observers (though not all) comment that the old chauvinistic attitudes are largely confined to the older generation, with more egalitarian models of relations having snuck in on the Eurostar some time over the past few decades. And while the extent of this is a matter of some debate, there are at least signs of demand for change:
Today, beside the Pompidou Centre, a "rally against sexism" will be held and a petition handed round that already has more than 1,500 signatories. Female representation in the public sphere; workplace harassment; increased recognition of women's sexual freedom – all are on the feminist agenda, and none of them will be easy to attain. But at least, it seems, there will be company along the way.I wonder what the attendance was like.