Feminists' anger at chauvinism of Strauss-Kahn affair

French feminist groups demonstrated yesterday against what they said is a "flood" of male chauvinist comments generated in France by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) affair.

Three women's pressure groups held a protest vigil in Paris and published a 6,000 signature petition condemning the "unabashed sexism" of some politicians and commentators – especially on the Left – who sprang to the defence of the former IMF chief and Socialist presidential contender.

"We do not know what happened in New York on Saturday May 14, but we know what has been happening in France in the past week," the petition said. "We have been disgusted by a daily outpouring of misogynist comments by public figures."

The petition said that friends and allies of DSK had portrayed him as the victim of a judicial lynching or possible conspiracy, ignoring the alleged suffering of the 32-year-old chamber maid whom he is accused of attempting to rape in his Manhattan hotel suite. Their comments, the feminist groups said, reflected the "impunity" with which "uninhibited sexism" was often expressed in French public life.

The petition was drawn up by the groups "Osez le feminisme!" (dare to be feminist!), "La Barbe" (the beard) and Paroles de Femmes (women's words). It was signed by female celebrities including the TV presenters Christine Ockrent and Audrey Pulvar, the actress and comedian, Florence Foresti and the writer, Florence Montreynaud.

The pro-DSK comments which have infuriated women's groups have mostly been made by left-wing politicians and commentators who would normally position themselves as supporters of women's rights. Socialist former culture and education minister, Jack Lang, said that DSK should have been given immediate bail since "no one was dead".

The commentator and leftist-nationalist activist, Jean-François Kahn – a close friend of DSK – said the allegations amounted to no more than a "troussage de domestique" (literally, stripping or having casual, forced sex with a servant). Both men have since apologised for their remarks.

Another friend of DSK, the Socialist Euro MP Gilles Savary, suggested that the ex-IMF chief might have been the victim of a "cultural" gulf between France and the US. Mr Strauss-Kahn, he said, was a "libertine" who enjoyed the "pleasures of the flesh" but this was not tolerated in a "puritan America, impregnated with rigorous Protestantism".

Mr Savary has not yet apologised for calling an alleged attempted rape "pleasures of the flesh".

"This kind of language generates an intolerable confusion between sexual freedom and violence towards women," the feminist petition said. "They tend to minimise the gravity of rape and to create a kind of grey area where it becomes more or less acceptable, just some sort of error of judgement.

"A simple message is being sent to victims: 'Don't complain'."

Politicians in President Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party have been delighted by the attack on left-wing politicians by feminist groups. They suggest that the Parti Socialiste will now find it hard to pose as a pro-women's rights party in the presidential election next year.

Environment minister, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, broke ranks yesterday and suggested that sexism was a problem not just in the Socialist party but a social problem in France as a whole. "A woman (alleging a sexual attack) always has to fight to be believed," she said. "Unthinking macho attitudes exist in all levels of society. Men are often not aware of it themselves."

Meanwhile, interior minister, Claude Guéant, said that France would be pressing the US to let DSK serve any jail time in France, if convicted.

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