Strauss-Kahn affair splits France as debate looks at his past and the moral future

As serious concerns rise about what is now suspected of the conduct of the former IMF chief towards women after his arrest in New York on an attempted rape charge, there is intense debate in France on how the private indiscretions of public figures should be treated in the future.

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More than a week after Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of trying to rape a New York hotel chambermaid, France is torn between conspiracy theories and serious concerns about what is now suspected of his conduct towards women.

At least 500 feminists and their supporters, staged a rally in Paris at the weekend, protesting at "sexist" responses in France that seemed to make light of the way DSK, as he is known, allegedly treated a poor black immigrant.

But the changing emphasis goes beyond feminists' groups. The interior minister, Claude Guéant, said if DSK was guilty of the crimes with which he is charged, he was guilty of "very serious acts".

Many in France, especially supporters of the socialist opposition that DSK had been expected to lead in the 2012 presidential contest, still believe he was set up by political or financial enemies. DSK has resigned as the head of the International Monetary Fund to concentrate on his defence.

Eyebrows are raised at the humiliation of Mr Strauss-Kahn in the so-called "perp walk", when he was led from a police station in handcuffs with cameras present, and the bail conditions.

But amid a steady flow of claims about a rich and powerful man's behaviour towards women, and especially women in subservient roles, public comments have become more measured.

Two men responsible for remarks that aroused feminist anger have already attempted to explain themselves.

Jack Lang, a former socialist culture minister, was criticised for saying, while complaining of a witchhunt against DSK, that it was a matter in which "no one has died". On French radio yesterday, he insisted that he was also a feminist and had intended only to point out that bail was customarily granted in the US in cases not involving murder or bloodshed.

Jean-François Kahn, founder of the news magazine Marianne, has apologised for saying it was less a case of attempted rape than a troussage de domestique, a phrase minimising the alleged crimes as "messing about with a servant".

Mr Kahn now says his words were spoken in the heat of the moment and that he meant only that he hoped DSK, a friend, was innocent of anything "horrible".

In fact, the more France's previously coy media reveal about Mr Strauss-Kahn's past, the more the French see that whatever happened in a luxury Sofitel suite, this is a man with an out-of-the-ordinary approach to women.

In an interview with the conservative newspaper Le Figaro, Anne Mansouret, whose daughter claims to have been molested by him when in her early 20s, said she had at the time challenged the politician, who explained that he had become "carried away" and did not realise he may have traumatised the young woman.

"A public figure who is incapable of controlling himself is dangerous," said Ms Mansouret, a regional socialist politician who knows DSK well.

The French media have also reported on a socialist parliamentarian, Aurélie Filippetti, who resolved never to be alone in a room with him again after one encounter, and a female photographer who asked for no more assignments involving him.

In 2009, a radio humorist was reprimanded after making the mock-serious announcement, as DSK approached the studios for an interview, that security measures included "the evacuation of female staff to other floors".

The French press also tells of an anonymous allegation about inappropriate approaches to female students when DSK was lecturing at the Paris institute of political studies (Sciences Po).

And it goes on. The French magazine Le Point reports that minutes before he was escorted from his Paris-bound Air France, awaiting takeoff from JFK airport, Mr Strauss-Kahn used a vulgar term to compliment a hostess on her figure.

French commentators, and politicians from right and left, continue to stress the presumption of innocence. Mr Strauss-Kahn's lawyer, Ben Brafman, interviewed by the private TF1 channel while on a family visit to Israel, said his client would plead not guilty to the charges and be acquitted

A clear distinction is drawn between the actions of a womaniser, and those of a sexual predator. But as French publications enjoy a big circulation boost, there is intense debate on how the private indiscretions of public figures should in the future be treated.

One elder statesman, the former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, talked at a weekend conference of the ruling UMP party of the "before and after" of the DSK affair, predicting that "a return to morality" would be at the heart of the 2012 elections.

* Additional reporting from Agence France-Presse