Strauss-Kahn spurring debate on sexual harassment

Published June 21st, 2011 - 10:17 GMT
Al Bawaba
Al Bawaba

The scandal around fallen IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has proved an awakening for young women in France and has sparked a timely conversation about sexual harassment, a US author says.

Elaine Sciolino, the long-time New York Times bureau chief in Paris, has just written a book exploring the issue of seduction in France and its importance in the corridors of power and the workplace.

And she said maybe there was another chapter of her book "La Seduction" to write now, following the revelations of the sex scandal surrounding Strauss-Kahn.

The former IMF chief and French politician has long had a reputation as a womanizer, but now stands accused of trying to rape a chambermaid in a New York hotel and sexually assaulting her last month.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and the case, which has rocked France, is making its way through the courts.

But Sciolino has focused her book on investigating the more relaxed attitude in France towards seduction, which is a part of the daily play between men and women, and at what point it tips over into harassment.

"Seduction is not criminality. Seduction when it's done well it's playful," she said.

"The book was not about sexual harassment. But I deal with sexual harassment in this book and I describe how different, very intelligent smart women, heads of corporations in France, look at behavior in the workplace that I would consider sexual harassment," she told AFP.

"If somebody is making a dirty joke, if somebody is sniffing my perfume and tells me it's so extraordinary I don't feel necessarily comfortable."

And she relates how the French custom of kissing a woman's hand made her squirm in a professional situation.

"I felt a little uneasy when Jacques Chirac kissed my hand when I walked into the Elysee. It immediately said: 'I'm the man, you are the woman.'

"Why should he think he has the right to kiss my hand. If I want to shake his hand and be an equal, why can't I be an equal?"

But she added the Strauss-Kahn affair was a wake-up call for France.

"I think this is France's Anita Hill moment," she said, recalling the woman whose accusations of sexual harassment nearly derailed the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the US Supreme Court in 1991 and sharply divided Americans.

"He still became a Supreme Court judge, but that testimony strengthened laws in the US. It led to a conversation about what is sexual harassment in the workplace. It led to stricter regulations in the workplace," Sciolino said.

"A conversation on this subject has been opened in France. I don't know: is the conversation going to continue?

"Will the conversation die down, will the conversation lead to real changes? But this is a moment that should be seized by French women to ask questions: what do we feel comfortable with, in our daily lives, on the street and in the workplace."

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