French Skeptical Of Ex-IMF Head's Assault Charges

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is under house arrest in a New York apartment this weekend. On Thursday, the former head of the International Monetary Fund was indicted on seven criminal charges stemming from an alleged sexual assault on a maid in his New York hotel room last Saturday. Host Scott Simon talks to New York Times Paris Correspondent Elaine Sciolino about reaction in France to the sexual assault scandal surrounding Strauss-Kahn.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn is under house arrest in a New York apartment this weekend. Thursday, the former head of the International Monetary Fund was indicted on seven criminal charges stemming from an alleged sexual assault on a maid in his New York hotel room last Saturday.

The case has caused huge headlines not just in the New York Post, but The Wall Street Journal and caused a political earthquake in France, where polls taken earlier this week show that 57 percent of the French think that Mr. Strauss-Kahn must have been set up by a political opponent.

Elaine Sciolino has a timely new book out early next month, "La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life." Elaine Sciolino, a Paris correspondent for The New York Times, joins us now from Paris, where she has made her life for nine years.

Elaine, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ELAINE SCIOLINO (Author): Well, thank you for having me.

SIMON: And, of course, we understand from the start that the charge is not seduction, but assault. Help us understand why so many French people seem to be skeptical of the charges.

Ms. SCIOLINO: I think we have to note that the poll that was done was done early on in this - the scandal, and that the French people are starting to shift their views as more information is revealed. The first reaction the French had was disbelief. How could this be so? This is not the man I knew. Anybody on the left was thinking, gosh, this guy could be the Socialist Party candidate to oppose Nicolas Sarkozy. And so in that climate, the feeling was there has to be a conspiracy.

Then what followed was anger, especially when the French saw the images of Strauss-Kahn being arraigned in a courtroom where he wasn't allowed to shave, where he had been handcuffed and oh, my gosh, he wasn't allowed to wear a tie. Now, I feel that a conversation has been opened about: What is the nature of sexual harassment? What are the rights of women? And what are the relationships between the powerful and the powerless?

SIMON: You say in your book, Elaine, that you have a section on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, that people spoke quite openly about the fact he had what they called a problem. And people even used the word, harassment. What were they talking about?

Ms. SCIOLINO: For years, Dominique Strauss-Kahn has had the reputation of being what is called a conseducteur, a great seducer, somebody who had so much charm that he could have relationships with women other than his wife.

But there also was a darker side. There were rumors that Strauss-Kahn also was more than just open to possible liaison, but that he often was rather forceful in putting pressure on women. The problem was that, for the most part, these stories were unverifiable. And I fault all of us not just the French media, but also the American media. We should have been much more vigorous in investigating some of these rumors at the time he was named head of the International Monetary Fund.

SIMON: Well, what discouraged some of that?

Ms. SCIOLINO: Well, in France, there's a culture of acceptance of extramarital affairs. And there's also a very, very strong tradition of protecting private life. The French will tell you - journalists will say we felt we were superior to you Americans by protecting private life. But now, maybe we haven't done our job properly. Maybe there were times when someone's private life would have an impact on his or her political behavior, and maybe we should have done more, and maybe we should change the rules.

SIMON: Well, I know the French call Americans puritanical, and they infer from that that there's something intellectually an even morally superior. But what are some of the practical drawbacks that result from that?

Ms. SCIOLINO: Well, there's no appreciation of what sexual harassment is. I wrote the other day that this is France's Anita Hill moment, because just as Anita Hill challenged Clarence Thomas and accused him of sexual harassment and it led to changes in laws, it led to changes in behavior in the workplace, so this is a moment of reckoning for the French.

SIMON: Elaine Sciolino of The New York Times, her new upcoming book, "La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life," speaking with us from Paris.

Thanks so much.

Ms. SCIOLINO: Well, thank you.

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