Image: Women wear false beards in protest
Jacques Brinon  /  AP
Women hold signs and wear false beards as they ptotest against sexism, rape and sexual crimes in Paris on May 22. French women's groups outraged by the political and media reaction to the sexual assault allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn organized the protest.
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updated 5/24/2011 2:21:19 PM ET 2011-05-24T18:21:19

France is sexy and proud of it — a country where flirting, seduction and sensuality add welcome spice to everyday life.

That's one reason many people had little problem with the reputation of the married former IMF chief and presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn as a "seducer."

But charges that Strauss-Kahn tried to rape a hotel housekeeper — and comments by some prominent Frenchmen questioning the victim's judgment and the seriousness of the charges — are making some question whether France's laissez-faire attitude has left powerful men free to mistreat women.

The criminal charges prompted the media to revisit little-reported incidents in which Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexual aggressiveness that appeared to cross the line into harassment. Women have come forward with their own stories of unwanted approaches that they felt powerless to do anything about.

As a result, "L'Affaire DSK" is sparking a national debate about sexual mores. France is questioning its self-image as a land of easy sexual give-and-take, where men flirt and women parry and no one makes a fuss about it.

Feminists say that, to succeed in France, women in politics, business and the media have to put up with "heavy flirting" bordering on harassment.

One political TV talk show panel titled "The Return of the Feminists" asked: "Are we all chambermaids?'"

Prominent journalist Helene Jouan said last week that as a young reporter she had to put up with politicians "knocking on my hotel-room door" and sending unwanted text messages. She said the behavior made her uncomfortable, but it was something that was not really talked about.

Strauss-Kahn, a suave 62-year-old politician nicknamed "the great seducer," long had a reputation as a womanizer.

But his consensual affairs and approaches to women he barely knew — both common knowledge in political and media circles — never made headlines. In France, unlike the United States, politicians' private lives are considered off-limits to the press. What happens behind closed doors stays there.

Some say this is an admirably mature attitude that separates the public and private spheres.

Others argue it means serious transgressions are covered up, and discourages victims from speaking out.

French novelist Tristane Banon has said Strauss-Kahn sexually assaulted her nine years ago, but she did not make a criminal complaint at the time. Her lawyer says she was pressured to keep it quiet by her mother, a regional official in Strauss-Kahn's Socialist Party.

Some prominent commentators have appeared to downplay the latest accusations against Strauss-Kahn, or dismiss the case as a cultural misunderstanding between the uptight Americans and the laid-back French.

Legislator and former government minister Jack Lang said the case was being overblown — after all, "nobody died." Philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy said Strauss-Kahn had been "thrown to the dogs" and wondered why the maid had entered his hotel suite alone and without knocking.

French media also have named the chambermaid, unlike U.S. outlets which generally refrain from identifying alleged victims of sexual assault.

These responses have angered French feminists, who have drawn 16,000 signatures on a petition expressing disgust at "a daily outpouring of misogynist comments by public figures." On Sunday, several hundred people demonstrated in Paris under the slogan "Sexism — (men) lose it and women pay for it."

Story: Strauss-Kahn DNA matches material found on maid's shirt

"We all find the reactions of male French politicians scandalous — and the deafening silence of female French politicians, except from one or two who uttered a couple of words," said protester Catherine Leon, 62.

Female French politicians have been tentative about addressing the issue, although Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said that the charges against Strauss-Kahn "are serious allegations" and cautioned commentators to remember the alleged victim.

One in five French lawmakers is a woman, a slightly higher level than in the U.S. but far below the level of egalitarian Scandinavian nations.

Writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes said the Strauss-Kahn case should lead French people to question whether "mixing sex and officialdom is harmless."

"I'd like to see the list of women who benefit, because at the moment I feel the game is only fun for one of the two parties involved," she wrote in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"If only it were only DSK; but it is clear that the damage goes far wider."

Story: Ex-IMF chief's wife stands by her man, as she always has

Political commentator Agnes Poirier said relations between the sexes in France can be both refreshing and troubling.

"A lot of my British and American friends when they come to Paris say, 'I feel like a woman because men are looking at me,'" she said.

The flip side is that women are expected to take unwanted sexual advances in their stride.

"They don't straight away go to a police station," Poirier said. "They might slap someone or put them in their place with a few harsh words."

Politicians' spouses are expected to accept extramarital affairs with equanimity — in public at least. Strauss-Kahn's wife, high-profile former journalist Anne Sinclair, has stood by her man, and put up the money for his $1 million bail.

Poirier says few in France want to swap easy Gallic flirtation for the "war of the sexes" they see in American workplaces, where people walk on eggshells for fear of causing offense.

But, she said, "the good thing perhaps that will come out of this is that it will make people more aware."

"Perhaps it would be better if women reacted more strongly" to sexism, she said. "Men may feel they have impunity if they get away with it every time.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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