DSK Case Crumbles; Is France's Sexism Debate Next?

There was plenty of dialogue about the treatment of women in France following the sexual assault charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Now that the case against the former IMF chief appears to be unraveling, many women fear the soul-searching will not continue. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

SUSAN STAMBERG, host: The arrest in May of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on sexual assault charges plunged France into soul-searching debate on many fronts, including the extent of sexism in French society. But questions emerged this week about the alleged victim's credibility. Now, it looks as if the case against the former head of the International Monetary Fund may fall apart.

Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris that some French women fear the soul-searching may end too soon.

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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Over the last few months debate has raged in France, both on the airwaves and in the streets over whether or not French society is overly macho. And whether despite claims of equality, women face discrimination and sexism at every turn. Feminists led the way, but they were quickly followed by women from every sphere, says Anne Elisabeth Moutet, a French journalist who writes for the British newspaper the Sunday Telegraph.

ANNE ELISABETH MOUTET: There has been this unanimous reaction from every part of the political spectrum, extreme right to extreme left and everything in between. And all the women are saying the same thing: We're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.

BEARDSLEY: Moutet says regardless of the outcome of his trial in New York, Strauss-Kahn's escapades have caused a tectonic change in French politics and society. She points to the recent case of the mayor of a Paris suburb who is facing rape charges. Two women, both former employees, only had the courage to come forward because of the Strauss-Kahn case. Now many fear that momentum will be lost.

Nicole Bacharan is an analyst with the French Foundation for Political Science.

NICOLE BACHARAN: The conversation that has started in France about machisme, about the situation and the true relation between men and women, I think it's all taken away by the: Oh, you see - it was all a setup, it was all not true.

BEARDSLEY: Before the New York hotel episode dashed his political career, polls showed that Strauss-Kahn would handily beat President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential race. Since the dramatic turn in the case, the only thing people are talking about is his possible return to the race. His alleged crime seems to be forgotten.

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BEARDSLEY: Parisians line up in their neighborhood boulangerie, or bakery on Sunday morning to buy fresh bread. Outside, a vendor sells newspapers. DSK, as Strauss-Kahn is known here, is on every front page. DSK: The Return, reads one title.

But 37-year-old Coralie Boitelle-Laigle, two baguettes under her arm, says she thinks Strauss-Kahn is only getting off because he's rich and can buy American justice. She doesn't believe the progress made in changing mentalities will be set back.

CORALIE BOITELLE-LAIGLE: (Through Translator) I don't think so. At least I hope not. The movement that awakened with this affair is going to continue. This is just a shadow over it, but it will pass.

BEARDSLEY: Still, a poll out today shows that 49 percent of French people would like to see Strauss-Kahn return to politics, against just 45 percent who think the scandal has finished him.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

STAMBERG: You're listening to NPR News.

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