When the news broke that IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of attempting to rape a chamber maid, the sorry tale didn’t get through the French press without a touch of humour.
The most blatant laugh came from the free daily, Metro, which splashed “La débandade” across its front page. Literally meaning “stampede” or “disarray”, it is also a play on the word “bander”, which means “to be sexually aroused”.
But compared with what was about to be unfurled online, that was nothing.
On Twitter, tweets about DSK’s “doomed erection” were endless: “DSK preferred erection to election”, “It’s all gone wrong for DSK’s erection”, “An erection too far”… Even lawyer and influential blogger Maître Eolas tweeted: "DSK still favourite for the presidential erection".
Then came the tongue-in-cheek comparisons to Arnold Schwarzenegger (who admitted to fathering a child with one of his employees Tuesday), a minute of silence for the “death of DSK’s political career”… and eventually, giggles over the fact that the alleged victim may live in housing reserved for HIV-carriers. “Strauss-Kahn is really unlucky – he might have AIDS!” screeched one.
A young people’s forum listed a number of videos parodying the scandal, four out of five of which were voted “LOL” (laugh-out-loud) by readers.
A pretend game, entitled “Maid Catcher”, showed a naked Strauss-Kahn edging his way closer to a cartoon character dressed as a French maid in high heels, and an old woman with a duster.
A round-up of cheap jokes was also being passed around, among them: “Strauss-Kahn mixed up foreplay (préliminaires) with primaries (primaires). We all make mistakes!”
Meanwhile, a popular pun mocking the incident was coined. “J’la force tranquille”, or “I force her effortlessly”, is a play on former president François Mitterand’s 1981 election slogan, La force tranquille (quiet strength). The pun resulted in a Photoshopped version of the original poster and its own Facebook page, which quickly attracted more than 18,000 followers, and an endless stream of jokes about the chamber maid herself attesting to DSK’s “seduction” methods.
A laughing matter?
French feminists were outraged by the jokes. “We are not talking about a libido problem,” Thalia Breton of the “Osez le féminisme” movement told FRANCE 24. “Whether Strauss-Kahn is guilty or not, we are talking about a serious crime. You cannot joke about that.”
With the number of sexual violence victims in France who actually press charges against their aggressors at a measly 10%, Breton argued that they could do without mockery. “The reaction to this affair will send a very dangerous message to victims of sexual violence,” Breton said. “They’re going to think that as soon as they speak out, their ordeal will be put under scrutiny and joked about.
“People need to be educated on this issue,” she continued. “They need to realise that sexual violence is not a laughing matter.”
French historian Georges Vigarello, author of “A History of Rape: Sexual Violence in France,” described in the book how the French have come to realise, after centuries of misunderstanding, that sexual violence is “the worst crime of all,” which causes “the shattering of identity,” and even “psychic death”.
But in terms of justice, the reality is far less impressive. It is estimated that only 2% of rapists are convicted and sentenced in France.
As Breton points out, “There is a long way to go when it comes to raising awareness on this issue. The jokes that have arisen from this story only show that violence against women is simply not taken seriously enough.”