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Are the French more tolerant of unfaithful politicians?

Published: Thursday, May 19 2011 2:26 p.m. MDT

The head of the International Monetary Fund has http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/may/19/dominique-strauss-kahn-resigns-imf stepped down from his position so he can devote his energy and time to fighting the sexual assault charges for which he was indicted Thursday but which he vehemently denies.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, 62, considered by some to be France's next president, sent his resignation letter to the IMF executive board yesterday, several days after he was accused by a New York City hotel maid of sexual assaulting her. In his letter, he spoke of his love for his wife and children and said he wanted to protect the institution that he has served with "honor and devotion."

His arrest — he is being held in New York's Rikers Island jail — and alleged crime has sparked serious debate in France, regarding both how women and the media talk about and deal with infidelity by political figures.

In a discussion in the New York Times, "Are French Women More Tolerant?" author Pamela Druckerman points out that French women "think fidelity is terrific," and place it on the top of their list for a potential spouse. (Men rank it No. 2 after tenderness.) Despite that desire, the French appear to be more understanding if their politicians waver.

In fact, they're even described as "sexy" and "seductive" in the press.

"No one — not even the politicians' own wives — expects their political leaders to keep all that charisma bottled up," Druckerman wrote. "In America, the cuckolded political spouse is supposed to react the way the rest of us do: with anger and humiliation. In France, she can survive with her pride and her marriage intact."

Caroline Weber, a professor of French literature at Barnard College and Columbia called such mindset a "longstanding French political trope: women's putative reverence for masculine sexual prowess," that extended back to Louis XV. In fact, when Louis XVI didn't play along with the misogynistic rules, he was considered to be politically ineffective.

But Laura L. Frader, a professor and chair of the Department of History at Northeastern University was careful to distinguish between marital infidelity and criminal behavior, like rape.

While French women may have different (as seen by U.S. women) responses to infidelity, "the use of violence to force another person in sexual activity, (is) something that no French woman I know of would accept," she said.

The "sweeping-under-the-rug-mentality" is notably evident in the French media, says Edward Berenson, a professor of history and director of the Institute of French Studies at New York University. Their press has "long considered the sexual misconduct of alpha-men beyond the journalistic pale," he wrote. "Any woman who dares to go public with accounts of sexual harassment, and worse, will be greeted with media indifference. If she persists, she'll find the accusations turned back against her. So why make waves?"

The French media have been very cautious regarding what pictures they've shown of Strauss-Kahn since he was arrested. French law regarding presumption of innocence doesn't allow suspects to be shown in handcuffs, according to The Guardian.

Nicholas Demorand, editor of the daily Liberation, told The Guardian that his paper would continue to respect politicians' privacy.

"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 said.

Email: sisraelsen@desnews.com

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