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Learning from from the Strauss-Kahn case

The chambermaid who accused a powerful French politician of attempted rape in a New York hotel last May turns out to be a liar. As her credibility crumbles, so does the legal case against the man, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. His supporters are already dismissing the whole affair as a witch hunt and hinting that he could still run for president of France.

What is the lesson here? Did the district attorney act too hastily?

Probably, yes. But the maid told a compelling story reinforced by forensic evidence and officials were under enormous time pressure, seizing Strauss-Kahn only minutes before he flew back to Paris.

The more important point is this: Women should be encouraged, not discouraged, by this whole sordid story. The judicial system responded to the complaint of a poor immigrant woman when she charged a wealthy, influential man with sexual assault. And the result has emboldened other women to end their silence and speak out -- against DSK (as Strauss-Kahn is known) and men like him who treat women as disposable playthings.

Sylvie Kauffmann, the first female editor of the Paris daily Le Monde, told The New York Times that this "DSK moment" will have a lasting effect on French politics and culture. Helen Perivier, a French academic who studies gender issues, agreed that the episode "raised questions that went well beyond his particular case and that of his guilt. People have started raising questions about the relations between men and women in France, and those questions won't go away."

They won't go away in this country, either. Not after Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Edwards both admitted fathering children with female subordinates -- a family nanny and a campaign aide.

Not after a governor, Eliot Spitzer of New York, and a U.S. senator, John Ensign of Nevada, were forced to resign after their lurid sex lives came to light. Not after another governor, Mark Sanford of South Carolina, served out his term ignominiously after his affair went public.

These cases are all different but one thread runs through them: men treating women badly, their wives or girlfriends or both. And many of those women have had enough. Take Tristane Banon, a young writer who interviewed DSK eight years ago. His former wife is her godmother; his daughter is her close friend. Yet, she alleges, DSK started ripping off her clothes and wrestling her to the floor. "When I realized that he really wanted to rape me, I started kicking him with my boots," she told the French weekly L'Express. "I was terrified."

At the time, she declined to press her case because "everyone told me it would never succeed," including her own mother, an official in DSK's Socialist Party. Her career would be ruined, her reputation stained as the "girl who had a problem with a politician."

But now it's DSK who has the problem, and Banon has filed a formal complaint accusing him of attempted rape. "If I want one day to put an end to this hell that has lasted eight years, it needs to be tried in court," she said. "There is no good solution, only one that means I can finally look at myself in the mirror. For once, I want to be in control of what happens. I want people to listen to me, because I have, perhaps, finally a chance to be heard."

Kauffmann said that Banon is not alone. "There's an awareness and a willingness to speak out that wasn't there before," she told the Times. "Even if DSK manages to come back and run, it will be part of the discussion. He's still a guy who had a sexual encounter with a maid at noon in a luxury suite before having lunch with his daughter and flying back to his wife."

How men treat women should be "part of the discussion" in American politics as well. Do male candidates regard women as equals or inferiors? Do they seek their advice as well as their affection? Do they behave morally as well as legally?

DSK probably broke no law when he pressured an economist who worked for him at the International Monetary Fund into a brief affair.

But she felt too vulnerable to resist. "I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't," she said.

We don't know exactly what happened in that hotel room last May. But we do know that DSK has a long record of abusing women. And we know that such a record should disqualify a man from holding public office, in Paris or Washington or anywhere else.