John Lichfield: The French more relaxed about sex? It's a myth

Share
Related Topics

Dominique Strauss-Kahn will never be President of the Republic but his political and social legacy is secure. He has shaken France more profoundly from his prison cell and gilded judicial exile in New York than he could possibly have achieved from within the Élysée Palace.

Three weeks after DSK's arrest, France is in culture-shock. The French are re-examining, painfully, two of their fondest beliefs about themselves. Fond belief number one: the French media and legal system have a healthier approach to the private lives of public figures than the prurient and puritanical "Anglo-Saxons". Fond belief number two: French men and women have much saner, and more relaxed, sexual relations than the uptight Anglo-Saxons, the frigid Germans or the silly Italians. The "affaire DSK" has left both fond beliefs in tatters.

Has the country's legally enforced policy of kiss and no tell concealed bad, even criminal, sexual behaviour by public figures? Quite possibly. But the pendulum has now lurched in the opposite direction. From failing to discuss what was widely known in the Paris media-political village (Strauss-Kahn's often aggressive and predatory behaviour towards women), France is now being confronted with tittle-tattle masquerading as truth.

A respected philosopher, and former education minister, Luc Ferry, implied on television this week that he had "evidence" that a former minister had been arrested during a paedophile orgy with small boys in Morocco. The scandal had, he said, been hushed up by the then French government. Which minister? Which French government? Mr Ferry did not say but he implied, self-importantly, that he had been given firsthand information about it by a "prime minister".

The French-language internet, including the websites of respectable news organisations, joyously guessed at the possible identity of the allegedly paedophile minister. All print editions, quite rightly, have refused to speculate and have attacked Mr Ferry. A preliminary criminal investigation was ordered by the French state prosecution service into a possible concealed crime. Mr Ferry was interviewed about what he knows by French police yesterday.

All the evidence suggests that Mr Ferry, a successful philosopher and failed politician, knows very little. He was repeating an often-repeated rumour, which had been investigated in the 1990s by the French media, in France and Morocco, and had proved to be groundless. He was just trying to make a point on a TV discussion programme or, as several French newspapers suggested, he was conducting a Cartesian experiment: "I am being talked about therefore I am."

And so to Fond Belief number two: "French men and women are more relaxed about sex, and about each other, than other nations (Brazil possibly excepted)." The "affaire DSK" has, it seems, broken a vow of silence among French women. Women's support groups report an increase of up to 600 per cent in calls from women who say that they have been sexually harassed or blackmailed at work.

Many of the incidents happened many years ago. The women were not necessarily seeking revenge or legal action. They just wanted to talk, for the first time, about what had happened to them. Women's groups say that the calls suggest that many – not all – French men in positions of authority regard female employees as a resource to be bullied, or blackmailed, or bribed into sexual submission.

Significantly, it was not Mr Strauss-Kahn's arrest on charges of attempted rape which dislodged this avalanche of female anger. It was the dismissive attitude of some male French politicians and political commentators to DSK's alleged crime. Many of the women said that they were moved to come forward when a Socialist friend of DSK talked of him as a "libertine" with an appetite for "pleasures of the flesh" or when a political journalist, and friend of Strauss-Kahn, spoke dismissively of the "troussage" (casual sexual abuse) of a maid. What angered them, they said, was not the allegations against DSK but what the comments had revealed about the arrogance and sense of impunity of French men.

As a representative of the frigid, uptight, prurient, puritanical rest-of-the-world, I should probably rejoice in the fact that the myth of the relaxed French attitude to sex has been skewered.

Some French men have undoubtedly exploited this myth to exploit French women. Sexual harassment has been more tolerated in France because the French like to believe that they take a relaxed view of sex. Similarly, the French media failed to distinguish between reporting on "private lives" and reporting on DSK's often offensive or aggressive attitude towards women.

And yet, my 14 years of observing the French, suggests to me that the myth of relaxed French sexuality is not entirely a myth. Many French people, both male and female, have a frank attitude to sex which is healthier than our sniggering obsessiveness.

There was support for this point of view from an unexpected quarter this week. French women's rights activists have long claimed that they take a more balanced and tolerant approach to male-female relations than the "politically correct" and "anti-male" approach of "Anglo-Saxon" feminists. In blogs and newspaper articles, American feminists are now accusing their "weak" French sisters of spawning male monsters by tolerating macho attitudes. In an article in Le Monde this week, the French sociologist, Irène Théry, defended féminisme à la Française. It was possible, she said, to demand equality for women while appreciating the "pleasures of consensual seduction and the delicious surprise of stolen kisses".

I would make a similar argument about French privacy laws. Public figures should be exposed if they behave badly. That does not mean that we always have a right to pry into the consensual love lives of public figures. Culture shock can be good, or bad. When the DSK affair subsides, it would be a pity if France learns the wrong lessons.



React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links