The head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been arrested on charges of rape. Lindsey German asks why a man described as ‘a well-known seducer’ and who enforces austerity was considered a suitable candidate for the left in the French presidentials.

Dominique Straus-Kahn

The accusation of rape against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, head of the IMF and potential left candidate in next year’s French presidential election, is a truly shocking story.

He is alleged to have attacked a New York chambermaid who entered his suite to clean, thinking that he had already vacated it. Instead he is accused of physically and brutally attacking her until she managed to escape and raise the alarm.

Strauss-Kahn left the hotel in a hurry, managing to be in the first class cabin of an Air France flight to Paris less than three hours later – the wonders of priority check in – where he was taken off the flight by detectives to be charged with attempted rape and unlawful imprisonment.

It is clear from the reaction to all this from the French political establishment and media that few were completely surprised by this turn of events. It was claimed that the novelist Tristane Banon was subject to a violent sexual attack by Strauss-Kahn nearly ten years ago, but that she didn’t go to the police – ’I didn’t want to be known until the end of my days as the girl who had a problem with the politician’.

Even Strauss-Kahn’s allies told the Guardian that he was ‘a well-known seducer’ but that the rape charges were ‘far-fetched and unlikely’.

However it seems that what is rather more ‘far-fetched and unlikely’ is that Strauss-Kahn has been caught and charged at all. That the word of a chambermaid has been taken against his. It remains to be seen whether he will be convicted. But it is clear that the great and the good of French society were content to allow a man who behaved like this to remain at large. Far from his sexual behaviour coming under scrutiny, it was deemed acceptable enough in his circles.

And these were the most exalted circles: as head of the IMF, he mixed with presidents and prime ministers, all of whom saw fit to pronounce on the need to ‘cut deficits’ and ‘balance budgets’ by cutting wages, welfare and benefits for the ordinary working people over whom these people rule. Strauss-Kahn was their man, so brilliant that he was tipped as next victorious presidential candidate. His behaviour to women was a minor embarrassment at best which should not prevent him from doing his job.

Rape and sexual assault occurs, of course, among all classes and across different shades of the political spectrum. But there is a particular attitude connected to wealth and power which deems that everything is available at a price. Rich men behaving like sexual bullies and predators, especially to servants and hotel staff, are not new. But the present political culture has turned a new page in its attitudes to women and sex.

Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister who appears to have turned one of his residences into a brothel, typifies the new approach. His choice of female ministers tends to reinforce the stereotypical views of women that he holds. Nicolas Sarkozy boasts of his sexuality and parades his trophy wife Carla Bruni as a sign of his virility. The Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, writing in his Prison Notebooks around 80 years ago, pointed to the degree of prostitution at the highest levels of US capitalism, and how the wives and daughters of the capitalists were bought and sold as decorative objects.

Just as the new masters of the universe – the politicians, bankers, industrialists and media tycoons – believe that they have the right to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us, so too they believe that they have the right to anything that they want. This has been exacerbated by the culture of the new rich: an insouciant disregard for the growing disparities between rich and poor, a form of conspicuous consumption which rivals the most gross monarchies of the past, and a belief that everything can be bought and sold. Believing that you have the right to sex with any woman that you want and that women are there to be decorative sex objects is part of this culture of conspicuous consumption.

Strauss-Kahn looks like he has gone too far even for his erstwhile allies. But there is one pressing question that remains: why was a man who was generally regarded in the quaint words of the Today programme to be a womaniser, and whose job was to enforce austerity and misery on millions in Greece and elsewhere – considered a suitable candidate for the left in the French presidentials?

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.