DSK scandal forces French sexism debate

The arrest of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn has sparked soul searching about sexism in France

Friday is the deadline for nominating a new managing director for the international monetary fund. The last person to hold that post, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is under house arrest in New York, charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid. The incident stunned people in his native France -- and started a new conversation about sexism in that country. CBS News correspondent Anthony Mason reports from Paris.

PARIS -- In France, his face stares out from every newsstand. As one headline put it "l'affaire DSK" has changed everything.

"I think this is like a wake-up call, a very noisy wake-up call," said Laurence Parisot, a business owner and head of France's biggest business coalition. Parisot is one of the most powerful women in France.

"Until now, this kind of situation, we didn't dare to denounce it. I think now, with the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, we will dare to denounce that."

Initially the French were angry at America for embarrassing a man many thought would be their next president.

But as some French men rushed to defend Strauss-Kahn's behavior, a backlash began to build. French women got angry. The Strauss-Kahn affair has provoked a nationwide soul searching about sexism in French society.

"We are in a macho society where the men are there and the women are there," said Franz-Oliver Giesbert, editor-in-chief of the magazine Le Point.

Said Giesbert: "I think there will be a before and an after. That's what we see."

Already, more women are coming forward.

Lynda Asmani, a Paris city councilwoman, said she once visited a powerful politician who offered her a seat in his office - on his knee.

"What about my knee? Do you want to come on my knee," she said, adding: "Of course, I didn't."

Asmani says it's part of an insidious bargain in French life.

"If you are a woman and you come to ask something to politician, you have to give him something back. And most of the time, it's your body."

The French media is also coming under fire. Four years ago, on national television, reporter Tristine Banon accused Strauss-Kahn of attacking her like "a rutting chimpanzee" during an interview. But the station repeatedly bleeped out his name.

Was there a code of silence about this kind of thing?

Giesbert, the magazine editor, says no.

Yes, Strauss-Kahn was a well known womanizer-- but he was never charged with anything in France, says Giesbert.

"We are journalists. We don't write about rumors," said Giesbert.

But suddenly, as one French editor put it, "tongues are untied."

Is France is ready for a change?

"I think women are ready to ask for a change," says Parisot.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn will not be running in next year's presidential election now. But he's influencing the debate in ways he never imagined.

  • Anthony Mason

    CBS News senior business and economics correspondent; Co-host, "CBS This Morning: Saturday"