Thursday, March 1, 2012

French Feminism Revisited

The Woman: Muriel Rouyer, Visiting Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

The Talk: A Transatlantic Perspective on the Strauss Kahn Affair: French Feminism Reexamined

The Question: Did the Dominique Strauss Kahn affair alter French feminism?

To answer this question, the jury is still out. The Dominique Strauss Kahn (DSK) affair of 2011 challenged more than the cultural ideals of French feminism; it exposed the intimate relationship between journalists and politicians, and unraveled the social fabric protecting French political elites. At its root, the affair and the reactions to it, challenged French feminists to reflect on what Rouyer calls the “culture of rights” found in the US and European Union.

Seduction, conspiracy and indignation

Professor Rouyer began her talk with images from French Newspapers two days after the DSK affair became public. Photos of a distraught and upset DSK were interwoven with quotes from prominent intellectuals and journalists about the flippant nature of the accusation. Ranging from seduction (“He is a seducer, not a rapist) to conspiracy (“Why would a presidential candidate do this? He would have to be crazy.”) to outright indignation (“How is it legal to subject an innocent man to the indignities of the ‘perp walk’?!), French critics of DSK were at first seemingly few. But they were not alone. A poll of the French public two days after the arrest found 57 percent believed DSK was the victim of a conspiracy. But why?

“Malestream discourse” vs. “Culture of rights”

The ability of French reporters to investigate and publish personal information about public officials is strikingly limited compared to the US. In France, two strict libel and privacy laws restrict papers from publishing information that could be loosely defined as “private”. What happens, says Rouyer, is that “French journalists often lack journalistic courage. The interests of the powerful are still embedded and protected by the press.”

The inability to report on personal affairs creates a culture of silence and prevents journalists from writing critically. Moreover, this sentiment permeates the greater public discourse as it becomes socially and culturally taboo to hold politicians accountable for seemingly “private” matters. In essence, “Many in France did not seem to realize this was a serious matter, that bodily integrity is part of your individual rights.”

She believes American and European laws reflect a more profound “culture of rights” for the individual. “There is a deep sentiment in American democracy that this was her right [to report the sexual assault]; many in France did not appear to believe this. They seemed to be entangled in the hierarchies of the old social order.”

Paradoxically, Rouyer finds the same culture of omertà that contributed to DSK’s ultimate fall could have saved him. She asserted, “Had journalists been allowed to keep him ‘in check’, then these women would not have been subjected to this [sexual assault], and ironically, JSK would have been protected from himself [and thus able to run for president].”

It appears the DSK affair challenged many French feminists to re-evaluate what they consider sexist in French political culture. Ideally from this discourse, perhaps a third-wave of transatlantic and transnational feminism will occur.

Melissa Sandgren is a MPP1 at the Harvard Kennedy School and a participant in WAPPP's From Harvard Square to the Oval Office program.

* Photo taken on International Women's Day 2008 in Paris, France; courtesy of Looking4Poetry.

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