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French Reconsider Sexual Attitudes After IMF Scandal


Now, we turn to the fallout from a different scandal - that involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF director, charged with the attempted rape of a New York hotel maid. Strauss-Kahn pleaded not guilty this past week. He's due back in court next month. The case has caused a great stir in both the U.S. and France. Initially, it seemed to highlight cultural differences between the two countries around sexual politics. But lately, French attitudes have begun to change.

Sylvie Kauffmann was the first female executive editor of the French newspaper Le Monde. She's now the newspaper's senior editor and she joins us from Tunis. Welcome, Sylvie Kauffmann.


LYDEN: You spent years in the U.S. as a Washington correspondent and New York bureau chief for Le Monde. So, you've really been able to compare cultures, at least in these cities. Would you say that the French are generally more tolerant of what Americans would call chauvinism and even sexual harassment?

KAUFFMANN: Definitely yes. And this is something which surprised me a lot when I came back from the U.S., precisely, where you have a very, very strong culture of gender equality and sensitivity on these issues. I'm not saying that you succeed all the time but there is definitely a public sensitivity to gender issues and gender equality and sexual harassment in the U.S.

And in France, there is a high level of tolerance. I wouldn't say that sexual harassment is approved. Of course not. There are laws, you know, against it. But the fact is that the society as a whole tends to brush it aside. Women are fearful of coming forward with lawsuits or with complaints. And men generally tend to minimize it as, you know, something which is a part of life.

LYDEN: You wrote in a recent Le Monde op-ed, suddenly, quoting you, "tongues have become untied in France." Can you explain?

KAUFFMANN: The outrage among women after some very respected male public figures' comments, some of them tried to minimize the seriousness of the accusations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and that really created a big shock among women. And this outrage may embolden women and possible victims to come forward with complaints of sexual harassment. And actually, women support groups have reported a big increase in calls from women who say they have been sexually harassed at work.

Of course, then you have to see what happened when the media attention dies down. You know, whether this is really a profound change or whether this famous French tolerance takes over again.

LYDEN: Do you think that French attitudes about what is often viewed as American puritanism is going to change?

KAUFFMANN: This I'm not sure. This is something I've often discussed with American friends. It is true that we have still in France a kind of freedom in gender relations which is quite pleasant. The problem is to find, you know, really the border between freedom in gender relations and, you know, the possibility to be flirtatious without being offensive and sexual harassment.

But it is true that we often poke fun at the Americans who have now those codes at work to leave the door open when a male collaborator has a female workmate in his office. We find it funny you have this kind of gender sensitivity. I personally think this would be useful.

If you take the case of Spain, for instance, you know, Spain had a very longstanding reputation for machismo. It is the country of machos after all. And a few years ago, the prime minister, Jose Luis Zapatero, decided to promote gender equality. He started by having half of his government composed of the female ministers. And we find out that today in Spain, this sensitivity has really increased and there was also a strong movement to ban domestic violence.

And so it is possible to make people more sensitive to these issues without falling into the puritanism we tend to see in America, I mean, that we perceive in America.

LYDEN: Sylvie Kauffmann is the senior editor of the French newspaper Le Monde. She joined us from Tunis. Thank you so much.

KAUFFMANN: Thank you.


LYDEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.