May 18, 2011 / 10:02 AM / 9 years ago

Strauss-Kahn case sparks debate over media secrecy

* France has tradition of ignoring political peccadillos

* DSK case shines light on tolerance of sexual harassment

* Anglo-Saxon tabloid culture not seen welcome in France

By Catherine Bremer

PARIS, May 18 (Reuters) - Attempted rape charges against IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn have unleashed a debate in France over a long tradition of ignoring philandering, and occasional sexual harassment of female subordinates, by men of power.

The French take pride in the fact that their media do not snoop into the private lives or sexual peccadillos of public figures, who are protected by tough privacy laws. Some even say politicians’ womanising is just a sign of a healthy libido.

But some journalists are having second thoughts.

“Protecting private lives should not be a pretext for hiding entire chunks of the personalities of politicians who are candidates to lead the country,” commentator Pierre Haski, founder of the Rue 89 news website, wrote in a blog.

“That should be the lesson of the DSK affair.”

Strauss-Kahn, seen in opinion polls until this week as France’s likely next president, was widely known among media insiders for propositioning female journalists and enjoying an unbridled extramarital sex life.

The serious charges against him of trying to rape a New York chambermaid, which he denies, have prompted soul-searching among some journalists who kept silent about his behaviour.

The case has raised wider questions about whether allowing flirting and unwanted advances to go unreported may create an environment in which sexual predators can rise to within reach of France’s top job.

But some editors reject accusations of having failed to do their job.

Nicholas Demorand, editor of the left-wing daily Liberation, said his newspaper would continue to respect politicians’ private lives.

“It’s a democratic principle, hypocritical in some people’s eyes, but fundamental... Ditching this principle would lead to encouraging short-term buzz and trash over quality news,” he wrote in an editorial.

Laurent Joffrin, editor of the weekly Nouvel Obs, asked whether France really wanted to import a culture of tabloid newspapers that spy on public figures to get sleazy stories.

“We have to be sure that’s what we want,” he said on LCI television.


Strauss-Kahn’s penchant for ladies was so well known in political and media circles that many on the inside had said it was the one thing that could bring him down before the 2012 presidential election he was seen winning for the French left.

Back in 2009, political satirist Stephane Guillon aired a sketch on France Inter radio about preparations being made for a Strauss-Kahn interview so as “not to awaken the beast”.

Bromide would be put in his coffee, the female interviewer would wear a burqa and if necessary an alarm would go off to warn all women employees to leave the building, Guillon joked.

Strauss-Kahn, who was in the studio, was not amused, retorting that humour ceased to be funny when it was nasty. Guillon was eventually fired.

That sketch came after allegations by writer Tristane Banon that the former finance minister tried to force himself on her in 2002 after inviting her to interview him in an empty flat. While she did not file a complaint — though her lawyer said this week she may still do so — she discussed the incident in a 2007 television show and it was considered an open secret.

Christophe Barbier, editor of the weekly L’Express, wrote that it was time to stop applauding high testosterone levels in politicians. “France must ditch its spineless tradition of electoral Don Juanism,” he said.

One reason cited for hushing up politicians’ sex lives is that journalists fear for the jobs. Another is that many French journalists enjoy close personal relationships with leading politicians of all political stripes.

Christophe Deloire, author of a 2006 book called “Sexus Politicus” on the aphrodisiac nature of power in France that included an entire chapter on Strauss-Kahn, based on anonymous sources, said the events of the last few days showed there was a problem in France.

“The news obliges us to ask ourselves about the usefulness of journalists. What are they for?” he wrote in the daily Le Monde. “Journalists, who contribute to the public debate, should reflect on this before it’s too late.”

The International Monetary Fund held an inquiry into a 2008 Strauss-Kahn’s 2008 affair with a junior colleague at the IMF’s Washington headquarters, but it was largely shrugged off back home, including by his wife, former television interviewer Anne Sinclair.

If convicted, Strauss-Kahn risks a lengthy prison term, when he might have been settling into the Elysee presidential palace.

Feminist lawyer Gisele Halimi, interviewed by Liberation, praised a U.S. justice system she said protected women’s dignity. “I am convinced that if this affair had taken place in France, we would never have heard anything about it.” (Editing by Jon Boyle and Paul Taylor)

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