French charmers' behaviour seen as not so charming
Marseille, France // The reputation of Frenchmen as debonair charmers has suffered a double blow with the falls from grace of two household names from opposite ends of the social spectrum, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the actor Gérard Depardieu.
Feted for their sophistication and sense of romance, Gallic males now see their image tarnished by the sex charges against DSK, as he is commonly known, and reports that Depardieu relieved himself in front of fellow airline passengers.
The levels of alleged misconduct may be some distance apart, but both indicate a coarseness that has prompted commentators and visitors to online forums to start asking what each episode says about Frenchmen generally.
The British newspaper, the Daily Mail, which in common with other UK tabloids misses few chances to ruffle French feathers, combined the DSK and Depardieu affairs in a headline asking: "Must French men give in to their basic urges?" The paper supplied its own answer: "Oui, oui and oui again!"
The columnist Jan Moir wrote that by no stretch of the imagination could 2011 be described as a vintage year for the image of Frenchmen. She noted that the allegations against DSK in New York, which he denies, that he tried to rape a hotel chambermaid, had led to disclosures suggesting a man who spent much of his life "pouncing on any unsuspecting women unlucky enough to cross his path".
Depardieu and DSK are both 62, born within a few months of each other. But their beginnings could hardly have been more different.
The former International Monetary Fund chief was born in the affluent Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. The son of a tax lawyer, he studied at the prestigious Science-Po college and, though a leading socialist party politician, has always moved in chic, prosperous circles.
Depardieu was one of six children of a metal owner in Châteauroux, a city 250 kilometres south of Paris. His childhood was poor; the actor has said his mother told him she had not wanted more children and tried to abort him using knitting needles. He spent much of his childhood playing truant and committing a string of petty offences.
He has enjoyed massive success in cinema and is revered by many countrymen, and internationally, for roles in films ranging from Cyrano de Bergerac, for which he received an Oscar nomination, and the Green Card.
But he has never shaken off rough-and-ready traits. Despite his professional achievements, there have been occasional acts of boorishness, from drunkenly insulting a fellow-guest on a television talk show to claiming to have drunk five or six bottles of wine in a day.
The previous lapses from respectability resurfaced last week amid reports of the incident on a City Jet aircraft as it prepared for take off from Paris for Dublin. Told he could not use the toilet because the plane was already heading towards the runway, he allegedly urinated in view of other passengers.
The plane returned to its stand to be cleaned and Depardieu was refused permission to fly. He disputes the version given to French radio by another passenger and insists he tried to use a bottle, not in obvious view of others, but that it overflowed.
He also denies the was drunk and says his unexpectedly urgent call of nature was a result of a prostate condition.
The explanations have not stopped internet users posting comments at French forums condemning his conduct.
One contributor to the website of the daily newspaper Le Parisien said he was guilty of "unimaginable vulgarity". Another, signing herself Mimosette, considered him a badly brought-up and vulgar, though she was sceptical about the air hostess's refusal to allow use of the toilet "for security reasons" since, she argued, it would not matter in an emergency whether he was there or in his seat.
Even so, much opinion - certainly outside France - seems to be against Depardieu, just as DSK's behaviour in his New York hotel, whether or not he is guilty of sex crimes, has raised eyebrows about his morals.
Champions of French masculinity say the misdemeanours, or worse, of two famous men should not damn half a nation.
Plenty in France still make light of DSK's womanising. A journalist, defending the media's previous overwhelming silence about evidence of inappropriate approaches to females, said there "a huge difference between seducer and would-be rapist".
In an online poll run by the US lifestyle website Hubpages.com two years ago, 89 per cent of women who responded admitted to finding Frenchmen irresistible.
An accompanying article cited their fashion sense, appreciation of feminine qualities, passionate conversation and natural tendency to make eye-to-eye contact.
Depardieu was described as "by no means a handsome hero" but the writer said it was enough to watch him in his own language in the title role of Cyrano de Bergerac to understand "why so many women are mad about him".
The actor can take comfort that not all past admirers are now turning their back on him after his lack of control on a jet.
"I have gone off Gérard just a teeny-weeny bit," an Englishwoman living in the French Alps and calling herself Gigi, wrote at one website. "But I would definitely still swoon if I found myself on a plane with him. Loveable rogue, that's what he is."
Published: August 21, 2011 04:00 AM