The DSK Case: Flirting, Groping, and Rape

French journalist Nina Sutton grew up in a country and time when women were routinely fondled. That history may help explain why France is still reluctant to condemn Dominique Strauss-Kahn, she writes.

05.24.11 10:36 PM ET

When I first joined Le Matin in 1977, the editor in chief was in the habit of appearing suddenly behind a female journalist and grabbing her breasts with both hands while making some lewd comment or depositing a kiss on her neck. It was exasperating, it was humiliating but, I am ashamed to admit it today, it was also somewhat flattering.

He was in his 40s, tall, and good-looking. To be thus targeted by his lustful eye and hands was a kind of a distinction, however distasteful the gesture was. And most of us felt compelled to find a witty repartee while trying to wriggle out of his clutches. Failing that, we were labeled "coincées," stuck-up prudes who didn't understand men and didn't know how to have fun. Subtext: What were we doing in a daily paper's newsroom with "real" (i.e. male) journalists?

Few of us managed the devastating: "Go ahead, François-Henri: You're the editor in chief and I'm only a foot soldier," uttered by my friend Marie-Odile, as she leaned back in her chair and opened her arms, in full view of her fellow journalists. For once we (the women present) were the first ones to laugh, while the invasive hands retreated hastily and the arrogant bastard was left speechless.

Those were heady days, Le Matin was a young daily born out of the hope of seeing the Left gain power for the first time in a quarter century. And its workforce was a bizarre mix: on the one hand, old-timers who had resigned from two major dailies when they had fallen into the hands of the former collaborationist press magnate Robert Hersant, and, on the other, a handful of younger leftist journalists, many of them women, with less experience but much more progressive, i.e., modern, ideas. The cultural clash was inevitable and daily. If Marie-Odile was never again bothered by her male-chauvinist colleagues, she was from then on murmured to be a lesbian in the old guys' corner.

By now, some readers must think me 100 years old. And yet I am only about the same age as Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Now, wait, I am not trying to find him excuses. If he is guilty of rape, he deserves all the punishment he can get. But, surely, my very embarrassment in recalling those events is clear evidence of how much France has evolved in the last three decades. Today, such a scene would be unthinkable.

The differences between the French and American judicial systems are at the heart of the misunderstanding.

Not surprisingly, some men haven't kept the pace. Like former culture minister Jack Lang, whose first reaction was to minimize the news by saying: "So what? No one got killed!" Or well-known pundit Jean-François Kahn, who dismissed the event as a banal episode of "maid-humping"! Or philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy calling it "a masquerade," while former defense minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement went as far as to compare it to the Dreyfus Affair! Note that they are all DSK's age or older.

Some of them apologized later but that did not stop French feminist movements from reacting forcefully: "The problem is not what happened in New York but the unacceptable flood of sexism that followed," said one of the leaders. And banners at a demonstration last Saturday in Paris claimed their support for rape victims: "No means NO!" and, in case DSK is guilty, "We are all hotel maids."

The feminist reaction was balanced, and it made some women who had expressed doubts about Strauss-Kahn's guilt feel uneasy for not having sided immediately with his alleged victim—a woman, an immigrant and a poor African to boot. How could we have been so callous as to doubt her testimony? It took me a while to find the answer to that question, but then with it came the understanding of all the bad blood that has been flowing between the French and American press in the last few days.

The fact is, so far we have not heard the voice of the victim, we have only heard what the police say she said. That's very different—especially since she is not a native English speaker (and anybody working between two languages knows how quickly translating can be betraying, as the Italians say—let alone in a police station!). And the accusations were so numerous, they seemed so extravagant—I still find it hard to believe that, in 28 minutes, a 62-year-old man weighing some 224 pounds can rape three ways (per the complaint) an unwilling woman of 32, pack his suitcase and (we all know he was naked) get dressed adequately enough to appear composed to a couple of French tourists in the elevator—that it was difficult for many of us to feel sympathy for the woman who was said to have uttered them.

The differences between the French and American judicial systems are at the heart of the misunderstanding. In France, we are used to criminal cases being handled by a judge whose mission is to examine all the facts, incriminating or not, before deciding on an indictment. So from the very beginning a police investigation is conducted under the supervision of the judiciary and the voice of the defense can make itself heard. Although plea-bargaining recently has been introduced in France and other reforms are in the works, French judicial culture is not one of deals being struck behind closed doors. When indicted, you cannot make an arrangement with the prosecutor to avoid a trial. As we say here, "Justice must pass" and, traditionally, the prosecution only comes into the light in the courtroom.

So this is why we frogs have been so shocked by what we've seen and heard last week. It is easy to guess why the sordid mix of sex, money, politics and conspiracy theories has proved so fascinating that, here, it overshadowed the Cannes Festival, as well as the announcement of Carla Bruni's pregnancy—and that even after former president Jacques Chirac's wife hailed the unborn baby as "the future of France" as if Nicolas Sarkozy were some kind of a king! But why has the event stirred up in the American press some of the most anti-French comments I have read since the same Chirac said no to the war in Iraq?

Societies do evolve and can learn from one another. A few years back, French cops used to laugh when the kids they arrested indignantly pointed out that they hadn't been read their rights. "You watch too much television," they would say, "you're not in America!" Today, French police have to comply with the equivalent of that section of the 14th Amendment. Is the United States above learning some of what the French system has to offer?

Nina Sutton is an Anglo-French writer living in Paris. The author of a book on the Watergate affair, she covered American politics for some 30 years, notably as the Washington correspondent for Paris-Match and Libération.