Dominique Strauss-Kahn's Last 'Seduction': French Culture Complicit In IMF Head Rape Allegation

By: Rachel Marsden

As a journalist who moved to Paris from New York nearly two years ago, I've needed to get something off my chest for quite some time: I'm fed up with French "seducers" and the culture of permissiveness that surrounds them. The alleged attempted rape of a Manhattan hotel maid by International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a reminder of how deep that culture runs in French society.

It's not that there aren't decent guys in France - there are, of course, plenty of them. But at the same time, "seducer" doesn't have the same negative connotation in France as it might in America, and that's where much of the problem lies.

"DSK," as he's known in France, has long been nicknamed "The Great Seducer." In other words, the 62-year-old Socialist is a leading ladies' man par excellence. Excusez-moi, s'il vous plait, while I plunge my head into la toilette.

I'm hardly in a position to pontificate on the merits of the criminal case itself - I'll leave that to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. Besides, as far as uninformed opinions are concerned, France's self-appointed spokesman of the intellectual elite, Bernard Henri-Levy, has that covered - defending his friend DSK's honor, after doing exactly the same for director and child rapist Roman Polanski when the latter faced extradition to the United States for yet another crime Henri-Levy wasn't there to witness but is very eager to excuse.

DSK may yet turn out to be innocent. Or he may turn out to be guilty. French suspicions aside, there's a finely honed American legal system to figure out which. And it's precisely this fact - that American justice is going to have its say - that the French are having trouble digesting. DSK may be a lecher, but he's their lecher. As French Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou said of seeing DSK partaking in that famous New York ritual known as the perp walk, "\[It's\] a brutality, a violence, of an incredible cruelty, and I'm happy that we don't have the same judiciary system."

With attitudes like that, it's hard to persuade friends in France to trust the New York courts. A recent poll, in fact, says 57% of the public in France believes Strauss-Kahn to be the "victim of a conspiracy."

It's par for the course; the French find it easier to dream up intricate conspiracies - in this case, most of them involving French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who was likely to face a challenge from DSK - rather than believe that their leaders are actually criminals who've earned their spot on Rikers Island (where DSK is being held on suicide watch).

DSK may simply have forgotten that Napoleon gave up America in the Louisiana Purchase, and therefore his "droits de seigneur" as a member of the French elite on American soil haven't existed for 200 years. The French response has been subtly condescending, as if we Americans can't understand their sophisticated sexual practices and arrest a refined individual like DSK instead of simply tolerating him with a c'est la vie, as the French for so long have.

But one thing I've come to understand as a woman living in France is the true French meaning behind that otherwise innocuous, even romantic, word - "seducer."

You see, a "seducer" in France is merely a spin that hides a darker reality. French law grants the right to fully control one's image and prohibits publication of personal details without expressed written consent. Journalists who break this rule are either sued, fired (usually upon request of the powerful person targeted) or blacklisted.

When in doubt as to whether a piece of information relates to the private sphere - such as when poor personal conduct occurs in a professional setting, something of which DSK has been accused over the years - journalists constantly make the mistake of dismissing it as a private quirk. In the same way, they withheld disclosing the existence of President Francois Mitterrand's secret family despite the fact that its lifestyle was being funded by taxpayers.

Still, the French are human - so open secrets circulate among the chattering classes, reputations are developed and journalists attempt to discreetly summarize for the public all the behavior they've heard about by referring to the person in question as a "seducer" in any articles they may write. Readers are then free to guess as to the details of the unspoken weight that term implies.

I have yet to meet anyone described as a "seducer" during my two years in France who hasn't come across as thoroughly off-putting. They're often throwbacks to monarchical times, when male elites married women they didn't necessarily love for social reasons and were therefore excused in pursuing true love with mistresses.

France has obviously changed, with people free to marry whom they want, yet there are still those who insist on acting as if the royal court remained seated in Versailles. Ergo, a seducer generally juggles many women, regardless of marital status, and enjoys the added benefit of society and the press romanticizing his piggish behavior.

Worse, seducers are often flatout mentally ill, or at the very least hiding some sort of pathology that the press can only legally summarize as "seductive" without the journalist throwing away his or her career or being hauled into court on a libel charge.

So as a woman in France, I've learned to steer clear whenever I hear anyone described as a "seducer." I'm looking forward to DSK, Henri-Levy and the French elite proving me wrong when "The Great Seducer" is discovered to have been the victim of a horrible misunderstanding. But I'm not going to hold my breath.