This is a guest post by Mounia. Mounia is an activist and soon-to-be high school graduate from Morocco/Canada. She enjoys working on issues around gender, queer rights and immigration- among other things. She also occasionally writes, and will be a Feministe intern in the fall.
Disclaimers : The links in the body of this post are in French, and provide the sources for the quotes given. My apologies. If anyone is curious and wants more a more extensive translation than already provided/given by Google, do let me know!
Also, this post is purely about French reactions to IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn arrest. It in no way makes a judgment on the case, as Mr. Strauss-Kahn of course deserves a trial.
It’s an “untolerable cruelty,” according to Socialist Representative Manuel Valls. As for Eva Joly, Green Party Presidential Candidate, she calls it a “nightmare,” “dramatic” and “very violent.”
These are the reactions to the alleged sexual assault of a hotel worker by IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. And from the vocabulary used – violent, nightmarish, dramatic — you would probably think the ‘it’ in question was the rape.
You would be wrong.
‘It,’ in fact, refers to Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s plight in the oh-so-inhumane American justice system. And the quotes above are far from exceptional. They are fairly representative of the reactions of French politicians to the news of DSK’s arrest.
By now, you’ve probably heard all of the basic elements of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s inculpation for rape. What bears repeating, in prefacing this post is who DSK is in the French political scene : He is an ex-finance minister, belonging to the current opposition party, the Parti Socialiste. He also was a prominent candidate in the Socialist presidential primaries, garnering immense popularity both amongst Socialist sympathizers and others. And he was the only politician who polled as winning a face-off against the right-wing nationalist candidate, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen.
This status, even more than his role as IMF director, makes DSK extremely high profile in France. So when I first heard about the rape charges leveled at him, I immediately feared horrifying media coverage. But at first, the coverage seemed mostly humane. No outrageous victim blaming articles appeared in the main French news outlets I checked – Le Monde, Le Point, Le Figaro, Liberation… However, one trend in headlines became more and more obvious. “DSK : The American Nightmare” for RFI. “The Fall of DSK” for Le Figaro. All of them fell along the same lines, and after a few minutes of reading, it almost seemed like there was no victim. It is that erasure that then became of staple of both French media coverage of and French politicians’ reactions to the charges against DSK.
Aside from recounting the charges brought forward against DSK, the articles mostly waxed poetic about his apparent despair and his family’s pain at his arrest – or made wagers as to what effects this would yield upon the Socialist Primaries. The victim of the rape was nowhere near the center of any of the stories. She was instead stuck in the sidelines, only mentioned very rapidly when prudishly recounting the charges, and set aside afterward. From the articles, it almost seemed like DSK was the victim – he certainly was the center of all the compassionate metaphors and concerns, and was the focus of the discourse. That trend was followed by politicians: 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal’s reaction was to “have a thought for his family, his close friends and for the man going through this plight.”
None of the compassionate words, and none of the concern, was for the victim. Instead, all we got were articles detailing her immigrant background, speculating about her physique (thanks to the always classy Le Parisien), commenting on how untrustworthy she was because she was poor… and her name. Yes, her name, violating all rules of privacy.
Meanwhile, most of the media coverage remains devoted to politicians having fits over DSK’s treatment by the “violent” and “accusatory” American justice system. Most were content to call for a ‘respect of the presumption of innocence.’ Which is fine and fair, except that it seemed to have a disturbing corollary: If DSK is innocent until proven guilty, then while we assume he’s innocent… we must assume the victim was lying in the meantime. And when someone demonstrated empathy for the victim, they were accused to take sides (a particularly striking example is Michèle Sabban’s reaction to Clémentine Autain call for more sympathy here).
The moral of the story seems to be that the true victim is DSK, and that it is his life, his pain and his plight that matters — not the woman’s. And even those who have no sympathy for the erstwhile IMF director don’t seem to have any for the victim: The true victim of this crime, according to Ecology Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, is France and its image. Whether it’s to profit patriotism or an accused rapist, the erasure remains.
A few went even further, including ex-Sarkozy minister Christine Boutin, claiming it was all a conspiracy. The theory seems to be that Mr. Strauss-Kahn was framed by political opponents who seek to keep him from running in the Socialist primaries and in the French presidential elections. He never could have done it! There must be an elaborate conspiracy to strip DSK of his presidential chances! In the words of Socialist bureau member Michèle Sabban, there was an ‘international manipulation.’ According to a recent poll, 57% of France’s population believes that DSK was indeed framed.
This denial at all costs seems to stem from two sources. First, there’s a camp dominated by Socialist sympathizers which seems to adopt the “DSK can do no wrong” attitude. In this, along with knee-jerk manifestations of friendship, other issues get mixed up – race and class, namely. How can we believe a maid’s word over the IMF Director’s? She must have been lying, or as one PS official argued on France Inter radio, “hallucinating.” As soon as Sunday, the prominent French weekly Le Point started putting the air-quotes around the word “victim.”
There also is the camp that regards rape as a minor affair. As Jack Lang, ex-minister of education puts it: “Il n’y a pas mort d’homme” ( “no man died”). If there is no homicide, why is it such a big deal? Here again, race and class are again an issue: If rape is so benign, and the victim a poor woman of colour, why should be sink such a great man’s career over it? The media, and particularly television media, has also made a point to label of all of this “aggression sexuelle” (sexual aggression or attack). The phrase “attempted rape” is avoided as much as possible – instead, polite euphemisms are used and abused. The fact that the media is so squeamish when it comes to even using “attempted rape” is particularly ironic, considering the charges leveled at DSK in France would be simply of rape, as forced oral sex falls under that category in the penal code.
There also is a particularly disturbing conflation of consensual sex and rape: at the beginning of his tenure at the IMF, Mr. Strauss-Kahn had an “affair” with an employee, which was ruled not to be sexual harassment (even though the woman involved said it wasn’t entirely consensual). Most newspapers put both this case and the recent accusations on the same level, implying that they are consensual affairs. A common opinion seems to be that DSK’s seductive (sic), “Don Juan-esque” ways with women caught up to him. All in all, rape and consensual sex are lumped in a large bag – with a large tag that seems to say “Seduction Techniques” on it.
This rather alarming tendency to ignore things like — the fact that rape is not a good thing — also manifests itself in the idea that this shouldn’t be covered because it is a matter of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s “private life.” And that is for me the most astounding thing so far in this whole media debacle: How in the world can politicians and journalists, as did the Marianne Magazine director in talk show Ce Soir Ou Jamais, actually argue that rape charges are off-limits because they’re private, and that this is DSK’s private life, rather than a crime? Aside from the patent absurdity of the statement, it clarifies an important point: To his supporters, this is a matter of DSK’s private life. Not the victim’s. His. And we encounter yet again the sickening notion that women’s bodies aren’t, y’know, their own. They are in fact at men’s disposal and if we talk about it, then we are violating said men’s privacy.
I suppose this serves as a reminder to any French woman (or any woman, really) who is a rape survivor – look, here’s what your country thinks: Rape really isn’t that bad! Women aren’t actually autonomous! If you pressing charges, you’re probably lying! And think about that life you’re destroying, will you?
And to all women, no matter what their experience with sexual assault is, it serves as a clear signal that – what a shock!- sexism is alive and accepted.
Note: There are feminist reactions to this outpour of misogyny. Clémentine Autain, ex-member of the Paris municipal government, has been one voice of reason. Another is Gisèle Halimi, a figure in the fight for abortion rights. A collective called Osez le féminisme (‘Dare Feminism’), along with other organizations, has started a call against sexism and misogyny. You can sign it here: http://www.osezlefeminisme.fr/article/sexisme-ils-se-lachent-les-femmes-trinquent .