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As l'affaire Strauss-Kahn unfolds, embarrassment and defensiveness in France

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As such, there seems to be some soul-searching going on. Did the pervasive culture here, which regards philandering as merely part of a long French tradition, allow a dangerous blind eye to be turned to rumors of Strauss-Kahn’s previously predatory behavior toward women? That's what some French editorials are asking, as women come out of the woodwork with unappealing tales about the prominent politician. His behavior, ventured the newspaper Le Figaro, would probably have spelled the end of a career in many another country.

Typically, philandering or even sexual aggressiveness is rarely raised in the press. In a country where the affairs of the powerful are treated with a shrug, or even a nod of approval, it is all simply a tale of titillating tattle, amounting, politically, to nothing.

“Almost all French male politicians are compulsive womanizers,” wrote Christophe Dubois and Christophe Deloire in their 2006 book on the personal lives of leading politicians, "Sexus Politicus." “Far from being a flaw, to cast yourself in the role of seducer is without doubt an important quality in our political life.”

In the mid-1970s, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing famously reflected on his appeal to female voters thus: “When I was president of the Republic, I was in love with 17 million Frenchwomen,” he told an interviewer. “When I saw them in the crowd, they felt it, and they voted for me.”

His successor, François Mitterrand, when asked by a journalist during his presidency whether it was true that he had a mistress and illegitimate daughter, simply replied: “Yes, it’s true. And so what? It’s none of the public’s business.”

And until last week, the gossip centered on President Nicolas Sarkozy and his third wife, former model and pop star Carla Bruni. Is she pregnant? Is it his child? Did he have an affair with one of his ministers? Did she go to Thailand for a love holiday with a handsome rock star?

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