Strauss-Kahn affair prompts backlash against French sexism

The so-called "affaire DSK" has generated a backlash against the casual sexism which has long been accepted as a way of life in France, with female politicians beginning to speak openly about the daily barrage of sexist remarks that they face from male colleagues in the National Assembly.

French women's support groups have also registered an increase of up to 600 per cent in complaints about sexual harassment since the former French presidential front-runner, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was arrested for attempted rape in New York last month.

A French-based group which fights sexual aggression in the work-place – the Association Europeénne Contre les Violence Faites aux Femmes au Travail (AVFT) – reports a six-fold increase in calls from women in the last fortnight.

"In many cases, they are very old offences, which are too late for prosecution, but at least the women feel able to talk about them for the first time," said Marilyn Baldeck, head of the AVFT.

The women's support and pressure group, Paroles de Femmes, says it has received 200 complaints on its hot-line in the last two weeks – four times as many as usual. "The telephone never stops ringing," said Olivia Cattan, president of the organisation. "It's as if an invisible barrier has broken."

The former French women's rights minister, Yvette Roudy, said that it was significant that the backlash had not started immediately after Mr Strauss-Kahn's arrest. "What persuaded many women to speak out at last was the dismissive and macho reactions of some of our male politicians," Ms Roudy said.

After Mr Strauss-Kahn's arrest for an alleged sexual assault on a chambermaid in a New York hotel, one of his political friends spoke of "American puritanical" attitudes to "pleasures of the flesh". The former culture minister Jack Lang said Mr Strauss-Kahn should have received immediate bail because "no one is dead".

In their complaints to hot-lines and interviews with the press, French women have complained that many men in positions of authority in France assume that women are fair game.

Sandrine, 28, a writer, told Paroles de Femmes that she had recently been summoned to a meeting in a bar with a publisher. When she arrived, she found that the bar was in a hotel and that the man expected her to sleep with him. "He said that if I refused he would make sure my book was not accepted by any publisher in France," Sandrine told the newspaper Le Parisien.

The DSK affair – and political reactions to it – has also given female politicians the confidence to speak out. The sports minister, Chantal Jouanno, said if she wore a skirt in the national assembly, male parliamentarians subjected her to a barrage of "salacious" comments. A female member of President Nicolas Sarkozy's centre right party said that she avoided sitting next to one of her colleagues because he constantly, and jokingly, asked her to have sex with him.

The Strauss-Kahn affair has, however, also put French feminism on the defensive. Some French women's rights activists have always asserted that they take a more balanced and tolerant approach than the "politically correct" and "anti-male" approach of "Anglo-Saxon" feminists. Since theincident, American feminists have been suggesting that their "soft" French sisters are partly responsible for the macho attitude of some French men.