Page last updated at 07:18 GMT, Saturday, 21 May 2011 08:18 UK

Dominique Strauss-Kahn: Sex, power and the French

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

French newspapers with headlines about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, May 2011

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair has brought back to mind that most hoary of cliches, that it is the British who have the sex scandals, while for the French the problem is money.

What has happened in New York with the IMF chief, supposedly is the exception to this rule: a sex scandal involving a French politician - except of course, in this case it is not just sex - it is also crime.

I have always thought the British-French dichotomy to be hokum of the highest order. The basis of the idea is that while the British are prudish and repressed about sex, the French are triumphantly open about it.

Therefore it would be impossible to conceive of a French sex scandal, because no-one would find it shocking if prominent people were engaged in extra-marital affairs. It would just be perfectly normal behaviour. But I think this view of the French is wrong.

'Pernicious lie'

It is the same lazy stereotyping that perpetuates the notion that the French are extraordinary lovers. They have no hang-ups about sex, so they cut to the chase and perform the act with all the fiery passion of their frenetic Gallic genes.

The difference between the cultures is not sex, it is politics and power.

Of course it suits everyone to keep this nonsense going.

British newspapers and foreigners in general thrive on cliches about the French, so they happily churn out the pathetic surveys about how more condoms are used per male in France than in any other nation, or how Paris hotels are block-booked by middle-aged civil servants taking two hours off in the afternoon to cheat on their wives.

And if you are French - well, if the rest of the world persists in thinking you are amazing lovers, can you blame them for going along with the lie?

But it is all a lie, and a pernicious lie at that - as, I think, the latest events have shown.

The difference between the cultures is not sex, it is politics and power.

Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn inside of a New York State Supreme Courthouse during a bail hearing in New York May 19, 2011.
Mr Strauss-Kahn was granted bail in New York on Thursday

Let us imagine a powerful, charismatic former minister, the lode-star of his party, an intellect, a wit - but a man also with a passionate interest in sex.

Let us imagine that in the course of his career, he becomes known as someone who uses both his political position and his physical strength to get women into bed.

His friends warn him that his behaviour amounts to harassment, not to say abuse, but he keeps going.

'In-crowd'

What happens in one society is that the man is exposed by the press. Intrusive, tabloid, exploitative they may be - but newspapers find out the secrets, report them, and the man is forced to change or quit.

But what happens in France? In France, the politician's aggressive sexual antics are ignored by the press.

Privacy laws stop them publishing, but in any case journalists and politicians inhabit the same metropolitan in-crowd - and "well, it's just old so-and-so; we all know how he's the 'great seducer'.. ha-ha; and no-one's ever complained, have they?"

Those in the know, know. But they don't say. And so old so-and-so begins to think he can get away with anything… anywhere.

In France - this revolutionary Eden - all life, political and cultural, revolves around elites.

These people are spared serious intrusion into their lives - so some of them do end up acting like some "fin de siecle" flaneur in a Guy de Maupassant short story, collecting mistresses and perpetuating the myth about the great Gallic lover.

But I can assure you most people do not live that kind of life.

And if there appears to be in France a kind of ultra-sophisticated, oh-so modern tolerance of the sexual habits of the people in power - it's mainly because the rest of us simply don't know what's going on.

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