PARIS » Claire Nini, now 25, was sexually assaulted as a teenager, and it took her seven years to file a complaint, she said, "because I feared the notoriety of my assailant, a well-known doctor in Nice."
But the furor around the arrest in New York on attempted rape charges of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who had been considered a likely next president of France, has given Frenchwomen and the modest feminist movement here a chance to speak out against sexual oppression and push for a less chauvinistic relationship between the sexes.
"I hope this is going to help the victims to speak," Nini said. "If DSK," the initials by which Strauss-Kahn is known here, "is really guilty, I think this affair is going to help women," she said. But if he is found not guilty, she said, "there is a risk that women will not be taken seriously anymore."
Strauss-Kahn, former chief of the International Monetary Fund, was arraigned Monday in New York and pleaded not guilty to all charges, a four-minute event covered live by the main French television channels, websites and bloggers. There were experts and court drawings and shots of uniformed hotel workers shouting, "Shame on you!"
The case has also sharpened the debate here about a French way of life, one of tolerance for a male-centric attitude in gender relations, an acceptance of all but the most egregious sexual assaults on women and a reluctance by the authorities to intervene, particularly in cases involving the powerful.
"This is a key moment, a watershed moment," said Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, an analyst of French politics and culture. Women from across the political spectrum "have extremely unpleasant stories to tell, that men think women are all up for grabs, literally and figuratively," she said. France is "a difficult country to budge," she added. "But it’s an important step. Women are emboldened."
One example of the habits of the past and of possible change inspired by the Strauss-Kahn case was the forced resignation of a junior minister, Georges Tron, who was accused by two women of pressing them to have foot massages that soon evolved into groping. The women said they were encouraged to speak out by the arrest of Strauss-Kahn.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been known for his own roving eye, kept his glance on the politics of the matter, with a presidential election next year. He fired Tron within two days.
Natacha Henry, a French writer and feminist who has written books about the sexuality of young women and about domestic violence, is writing a chapter for a book about the Strauss-Kahn case, concentrating on the more discreet sexual discrimination prevalent in French life.
"Women are starting to speak out now," Henry said. "Strauss-Kahn’s friends said he was always a womanizer, a ‘dragueur,’ but we are saying that this is not about seduction, not about ‘la drague,’ but about something else. This is not about sex, seduction, love or an equal relationship, but it is everything to do with power. A lot of attitudes that in America would be considered sexual harassment would be seen here as, ‘Oh, he’s so keen on women."’
She added: "For the friends of DSK, feminism and equality hasn’t entered their brains or their political culture. It’s like they were building a sexual planet for themselves, without women."
Viviane Meunier, a lawyer, noted an important effect. "The simple image that any woman can report what she suffered, that her word can be taken seriously against a high-ranking public figure, is already enough to convey a message to all victims," she said. "I do not think it will mark the birth of a new feminism, but it will contribute, I hope, to the long evolution of gender relations."
For Moutet, the misuse of male power "meets an echo everywhere," not just in politics or in the capital. She cited a 1990 film, "Promotion canape," a title that refers to a casting couch. "It exists in the civil service, in companies, in the post office," she said. "This will definitely impact women, it will filter down."
She and others pointed to interviews with nine female politicians published May 31 in the daily Liberation, under the headline, "Sick of the machos." They described "incredibly gross jokes" in the National Assembly and feeling the need to wear trousers to make a speech. But some, like Cecile Duflot, leader of the Greens, noted that "there is a quite sharp difference between people under 40 and those who are older," while Roselyne Bachelot, a minister, said that "in 30 years of political and feminist engagement, of course I saw real transformations. But the battle is never won."
Not everyone is optimistic. Marine de Tilly, a journalist and book critic, said nothing would change in France. "There is nothing new under this sad sun," she said. "To me, this affair is only another sordid story on the long list of sexual aggressions perpetrated against women by men."
Many women, even those outraged by the Strauss-Kahn and Tron cases, still see a difference between France and America that they do not want to lose, including both flirtatiousness and discretion about the private, noncriminal lives of adults.
Flora Saladin, 28, a Socialist who works in government pressing for women’s and minority rights, says that flirting does not bother her at all, "so long as it stays respectful," she said. "It doesn’t bother me if someone tells me I look more attractive with my hair a certain way. You can’t stop men from making compliments, and there’s nothing wrong with it anyway."
Henry says there is a problem with the image of French feminism itself. "If you’re a feminist, it means you are not feminine," she said. Even the tolerance of sexualized compliments is a form of power play, she said. She told of a friend being called into the chief editor’s office at a radio station. The editor shut the door and said: "Oh, I see you’re in a skirt; I can see your legs. Please wear a skirt every day."
To Frenchmen, she said, "it’s a way of maintaining a reputation of being nice to women."
"But it’s all about power," she said. "At that moment the woman cannot answer and thinks: ‘He wants to talk about my skirt; I want to talk about work. I’m stuck, I’m stuck, I’m stuck."’ But Henry says she, too, values French discretion about the private lives of public figures.
Sylvie Kauffmann, the first woman to become editor of Le Monde, wrote in an editorial that "suddenly tongues are untied," and women are sharing stories of sexual harassment. "Without falling into puritanism," she wrote, "there is a remedy for those excesses: male-female parity."
Emeline S., 24, works as a junior manager at an international company and asked that her surname not be used out of concern for her career. She finds that a degree of flirtatiousness and seductiveness helps her in the job. "I think you can manage to make many things happen by playing on seduction," she said. "Smiles, that sort of thing, it really works on men," she said, adding: "I have the feeling that I put myself in a seduction relationship with both men and women."
For ordinary people, she said, "I don’t think that it’s going to change anything at all."