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The "DSK Affair" & American Independence Day: An Open Letter to the Women of France

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On Independence Day weekend, here's an open letter to the femmes of France about gender relations and sexual harassment in the French workplace, in light of the ongoing DSK saga playing out in New York:

To French women who want to see sexual innuendos dropped, and sexual harassment stopped, in your workplaces, American women offer vigorous support.

To young French girls who deserve to grow up with equal opportunity and sans sexual harassment, American women send a well-documented note of encouragement that the social order can indeed be changed; just look at the history of American workplace protections against such abuses.

Finally, to French women who have the guts to confront the status quo, American women, including those who don't consider themselves feminists, offer a most un-French shout out: You go girl!

It's a Sunday morning on July 4th weekend in Brooklyn, New York, and the news is filled with photos of a smiling Dominique Strauss-Kahn, released from bail in a New York City court two days ago after an alleged rape case against him was said to be "falling apart."

Whatever happens next in the story of the Sofitel maid against the former head of the IMF and leading Socialist Party contender for French President- - her claim that he'd sexually assaulted her in a hotel room rocked the Western political world -- the DSK case has opened up a can of cultural worms about sexual aggression against women in France.

In American law, sexual harassment is conceptually related to basic civil rights. It has been for decades. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, "Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

Yet in today's New York Times story, Frenchwomen Weigh Impact and Fallout of Strauss-Kahn Case, leading French women sound at best cautiously optimistic about public debate on this topic.

The French may call Americans prudes. But to an American eye, sexual innuendo, touching, invitations and outright aggression are less than charmant, especially when they occur at work.

I'd bet my last croissant that the average gal in New York or Chicago or Houston is generally unaware that many French women live with a level of culturally sanctioned sexual harassment that would drive them crazy. Who knew?

Not I, for one. I've sat in Parisian cafes, lingering over my café au lait and watched a parade of French women, teens to octogenarians, all the while trying to deconstruct what it is about them that's so stylish: Their deft use of accessories? Good haircuts? Thin waists and big belts?

Never once did it occur to me that in dressing to draw attention, they'd be drawing attentions they didn't dare demur. Because French women project a sense of personal power, my imagination didn't wander in the direction of their possible powerlessness. But it's the unwanted quandary of working women everywhere: an advance by the boss who pegs job promotions or salary increases to sexual availability.

I've always bought the Francophile line that French men are so very charming, that French women have a je ne seis quoi style, that sweet nothings are somehow more romantic when uttered with a French accent than a Texas twang.

Has the mystique of French fashion and romance obscured the reality of French sexual politics? Perhaps. Add French insistence on the privacy of one's personal life to the mix, and you've got a perfect recipe for sexual exploitation in the workplace.

"People have started raising questions about the relations between men and women in France," says Hélène Périvier, co-director of the gender program at the Institut d'Études Politiques. She tells the New York Times, "And those questions won't go away."

To someone of the bra-burning, Equal Rights Amendment-demanding generation, this response to the phenomenon of the sexualized workplace sounds mild -- even a few decades late.

From this American's perspective, the peek into the French landscape of sexual advances and sexual harassment afforded by the DSK case feels shockingly familiar, like a bad dream revisiting from the 1960s. It's all too easy to recall the inner turmoil cause by the boss' hand fondling one's knee, the unasked-for invitation to dinner when his wife is away.

At least two generations of working women in the US have got the gist, if not the precise language, of the legal boundaries between friendly banter and sexual harassment. For the record, the EEOC defines the latter thus: "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment." It's harassment, not play, "when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual's employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment."

July 4th is American Independence Day, when the colonies revolted against the British crown -- with French assistance -- and declared Americans free in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. There can be neither liberty nor happiness for working women who face a culture of male sexual aggression in offices, factories and on the job.

So, from across the pond: Mademoiselles and madames who are fighting to eliminate sexual violence and harassment from the French workplace, you have our support.

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