Lucy Wadham: Why the French still don't get it

The French are angry with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, not so much for what he might or might not have done in that New York hotel room that bright, spring morning, but for quite simply ruining everybody's fun. After l'affaire DSK, things in France will never be the same again. Just like the Dreyfuss Affair, which at the end of the 19th century held up a mirror to French anti-semitism, this story of a powerful Frenchman brought low by his libido sounds the death knell for French patriarchy.

Since DSK's arrest, a trail of stories confirming his profile as a sexual predator have been made public, most of them stories that were, according to that unique French journalistic tradition, known but not reported. One of them, recounted five years ago on a chat show by Tristane Banon, the alleged victim herself, has morphed into another attempted rape charge, ready to fell DSK as soon as he gets home. A month after DSK's arrest, the first high-profile sexual harassment charge was brought against Georges Tron, Sarkozy's secretary of state for public affairs, a case that has since led to Tron's resignation and left other libidinous French politicians trembling in their boots.

Online comments about Le Monde's leading editorial yesterday reveal the shift in sentiment since his arrest. His case may have been dismissed, observe the readers, but he is still a "bourgeois molester of maids", "a grotesque priapic creep". DSK left France as a grand seducteur and has returned, it seems, as a dirty old man. The newspaper's editorial itself is striking for its ambivalence. "In spite of the dismissal, a merciless affair" ran the headline. In the absence of any perceivable opinion on the matter, Le Monde congratulates itself on its own foresight. "On May 16th [the day after DSK's arrest] we wrote that DSK was 'a man already judged both politically and by the press. And harshly, mercilessly punished'."

Unsure of what exactly they should be feeling about the case itself, the chattering classes focus on the one thing they do know: they do not wish to become like America. Le Monde concludes by expressing "the hope that the Americans will review their barbarous habit of the 'perp walk', this walk of dishonour for the suspect." This kind of moralising has been a constant feature of the coverage since the DSK story broke because, although it is rarely named, the importation of the gender conflicts of the US is France's biggest fear.

Nowhere is the cultural divide between France and the Anglo-Saxon world more evident than in matters of gender. The prevailing view expressed by both the men and women at the dinners I've attended in the past three months is that this case must not, on any account, be allowed to destroy France's tradition of enlightened libertinage. As the writer (or if you're French, philosopher) Pascal Bruckner, put it in a newspaper article, what the DSK affair reveals above all is that America "clearly has a problem with sex... To call it puritanical isn't enough because it is a perverse Puritanism... a lewd Puritanism that serves one purpose... to condemn eroticism the better to talk about it, to salivate for weeks and months over tasty details, to evoke fellatio, sperm, genital organs with a delectation disguised as indignation".

Bruckner even sees in this affair not only the public shaming of a man, but of an entire culture. France is being punished he says, for her position on "Iraq, for Roman Polanski, for the law on the burqa". The unexpressed goal, he goes on, is to subdue this recalcitrant nation with its dubious morals and its contrary worldview. Few here in France would go as far as Bruckner but there is a sense that while rape is rape and must be punished accordingly, it would be a great sadness if the DSK affair were to lead to the low-level gender war that dominates relations between men and women in our culture.

Lucy Wadham is the author of 'The Secret Life of France'