Don't let Dominique Strauss-Kahn become the victim | Isabelle Germain

The French media's response to Strauss-Kahn's arrest says much about the country's tolerance for sexual misconduct

The events leading to the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York are not yet known in their entirety. But, in France, the media reaction to the attempted rape charge confirms that when a rape or sexual assault is reported, the alleged perpetrator quickly morphs into victim – and vice versa.

The news of Strauss-Kahn's arrest for allegedly assaulting a housekeeper at the hotel where he was staying immediately prompted astonishment: how could this successful politician take the risk of committing an offence that could lead, in the US, to 30 years behind bars? Conversely, was this in fact a political conspiracy, contrived by his powerful enemies? Friends and allies were certainly quick to rush to his defence: Bernard-Henri Lévy has vouched for his good character and Robert Badinter, husband of prominent feminist Élisabeth, insisted on French radio that he had been unfairly and deliberately "destroyed before any trial". Either way, the spotlight focuses on the potentially ruined politician, and not his alleged victim.

In France, the case has swept to the top of the news agenda. But it has done so with an unequivocal message: poor DSK! The photographs of a wealthy and powerful man slumped and unshaven in the dock have evoked pity and sympathy – Martine Aubry, first secretary of the French Socialist party, said she was "stunned, shocked" after seeing them, and pleaded for the media onslaught to stop. And yet, nothing has been mentioned about the plight of his alleged victim, or about how hard it is to speak out about sexual violence.

DSK's behaviour towards women is talked about as if it wasn't harassment, but a game of seduction. And if we finally start talking about his alleged victim, it's to suggest she was a honeytrap. Instead, the press chooses to highlight the words of his political allies, who describe him as a benign seducer – but "one that does not force anything". Commentators repeat that this is about his "private life". But with a non-consenting person, it is not an issue of privacy. Still, this distinction seems beyond France's leading journalists.

And then there's the brand of humour that's employed. On Monday morning, the daily Metro carried the headline "la débandade" (roughly meaning "stampede", but also a play on the word "bander", meaning "to be sexually aroused"). On Twitter, the lawyer and influential blogger Maître Eolas had a similar bit of fun: "DSK still favourite for the presidential erection". Similar jokes are everywhere – that touch of Gallic humour that transforms claims of sexual violence into knowing jokes.

How this news has been treated by the French media says a lot about the country's tolerance of sexual misconduct. DSK's reputation with women was an open secret. The journalists knew, the politicians knew. But, as Libération journalist Jean Quatremer writes, "having written about it in July 2007 … I incurred the wrath of some of my colleagues and part of the political class". Indeed, following the appointment of DSK at the IMF, he wrote on his blog: "The only real problem with Strauss-Kahn is his relationship to women. Too forceful, he often borders on harassment. It's a flaw known about in the media, but nobody is talking about it openly (we are in France)."

The code of silence reigns. Take the journalist and novelist Tristane Banon, who claims to have been sexually assaulted by DSK in 2002, when she was in her early 20s. Her mother, Anne Mansouret, a socialist candidate in the presidential primaries, told French TV on Monday that she had deterred her daughter from pursuing legal action because Strauss-Kahn was a family friend. But she added that the alleged assault had driven her daughter into depression.

In this country, it seems that the shame of sexual assault is still squarely placed upon, and carried by, the victims. It is akin to those families where incest is kept silent for fear of reprisal or to preserve the family, while the victim is scarred for life and asked to suffer in silence. It is a means of preserving a social equilibrium dictated by the powerful. In the case of Banon, the silence should have been broken by the media. The young woman had spoken about her ordeal on a TV discussion show. Around her the other guests laughed; the host even punctuated her testimony with a sarcastic "j'adore!" – not easily translated in this context, but roughly meaning "what cheek!" in a half-admiring, half-shocked tone. Incidentally, a guest also asked how she was dressed, picking up on the theme of the victim who "had it coming".

To date, we do not know what really happened. But what we do know is that the way the French media talk about the alleged victims is crucial to cracking the code of silence surrounding sex crimes in France. As it is, whether DSK is guilty or innocent, it looks unlikely that this case will do much to break that code.

Isabelle Germain is a French journalist and the founder of the online pro-parity magazine Les Nouvelles News

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Isabelle Germain

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