French Journalists’ Silence on IMF's Strauss-Kahn Reminds Sarah Glazer of Her Own Complicity
It’s an odd feeling to spend a month writing an article about the something as dry as the European currency union only to have it sensationalized the day of publication by an international sex scandal.
“But what does it mean for Greece?” my editors queried, as the news was breaking of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest for attempted rape.
I have no idea. Just when I should be thinking about the perils of default for a poor struggling country, I find myself flashing back to my own struggle beneath a heavy man on a dark, deserted field in Chicago.
It’s now coming to light that Strauss-Kahn had a history of sexual misdeeds that was carefully obscured by French journalists for years. And it almost seems that French society as a whole was complicit.
The BBC reports that the 32-year-old African hotel maid had no idea who DSK was or how prominent he was when she reported the assault—and that she was scared when she learned who he was. But now that she does know, her lawyer insists she will follow through on the charges because she believes it’s the right thing to do.
I did just the opposite of the chambermaid, for opposite reasons, and now I wonder if it was the wrong thing to do.
In 1968, when I arrived as a freshman at the University of Chicago, a white enclave in the middle of a black slum, our orientation week included a lecture by a campus policeman on what to do if we were attacked on the street. “Scream for help! As loud as you can,” he advised.
As a New York City girl, I dismissed these warnings. I was more interested in radical politics and the problems of the black working class.
A year later, a young black man walking towards me on a dark street shoved me off the sidewalk forcing me to lie on the hard ground beneath him. Scream for help, I thought, but the only sound I could muster was a high-pitched squeak from a voice box constricted with terror. I could feel how overpowered I was as I pummeled away hopelessly at the man’s chest.
But it must have had some effect. Strangely, I suddenly saw a flash of a scared young face, almost as terrified as my own, pull away from me; then he ran down the street.
When I got home that night, my roommate nodded approvingly when I said I would report the incident but wouldn’t try to identify the guy. Just like the French press, our radical circle was complicit in keeping these things quiet.
Even the policeman who asked me if I’d be willing to pick my attacker out of a line-up nodded resignedly when he heard my answer. Maybe he even knew the ideology: Middle-class white girls don’t send poor black men to prison; we remember the terrible history of innocent black men lynched down South on false accusations of raping white women. In my case one value--defying that history--trumped another, testifying about an attempted rape.
Now the power tables are reversed. A poor black woman could send a rich white man to prison.
If she goes through with it, she’ll apparently be braver than all the others—including the French journalist Tristane Banon, who never brought charges, reportedly because she was worried about her career. And, if Strauss-Kahn is guilty, the actions of this maid from a former French colony could put a stop to the attacks, protecting other women.
This story made me ponder the French hierarchy of values-and how vastly it varies from their culture to ours. As early as 2007, a blog by a French journalist warned that Strauss-Kahn, then France’s candidate to head the International Monetary Fund, had a problem: his attitude towards women. “Too heavy-handed, he often verges on harassment. A failing known to the media but about which no one speaks (we are in France). But the IMF is an international institution with Anglo-Saxon values. One gesture out of place … and there will be a media frenzy.”
The author of the blog, Libération journalist Jean Quatremer, says he was accused of “crossing a red line, of violating politicians’ private lives, of stealing into their bedroom—in brief, of behaving like one of those predatory Anglo-Saxon journalists.” Nothing about his blog was repeated in France’s written press, radio or television.
Even though reporters and politicians have swapped stories for years about Strauss-Kahn’s uncontrollable sexual appetite, Quatremer says, such tales were considered the domain of “private life,” so journalists were “paralyzed.”
When I arrived at Chicago, there was a different but equally pernicious hierarchy of values. Women’s Liberation was barely nascent; adherents were regularly mocked at our student radical meetings. Today, in an era when students march on campus to Take Back the Night from date rapists, would young women engage in a similar conspiracy of silence? Apparently they still do in France. But maybe this incident will break the code of silence.