'Berluskahn': Sex scandals challenge two European leaders

29th May 2011, Comments 0 comments

One has been charged with attempted rape, the other is on trial for having allegedly had sex with an underage prostitute.

The accusations may be different but the scandals surrounding Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Silvio Berlusconi reveal underlying similarities.

Critics say the moral of the "Berluskahn" story is an age-old one: the corrupting influence of power and the hubris of a class of male politicians.

"The parallels jump out at you," said Chiara Volpato, a social psychology professor in Milan -- one of several commentators who have compared former International Monetary Fund chief Strauss-Kahn with Italy's prime minister.

"If the accusations are confirmed, it was power in both cases that brought about the dehumanisation of the other. They see women as an instrument for their pleasure. They see women as interchangeable," Volpato said.

"They are not worried about how they can make women suffer," she added.

The philosopher Michela Marzano from the CNRS research institute in France agreed.

"It's above all about the abuse of power. Once you get into power you think you can do anything, you think you are above the law," she said.

Silvio Berlusconi is accused of sleeping with then 17-year-old Moroccan-born Karima El-Mahroug, better known as "Ruby the Heart Stealer".

The 74-year-old also faces of charges of abuse of power for allegedly getting her out of police custody so she could not reveal their liaison.

The trial is set to resume after a long pause in Milan on Tuesday.

Strauss-Kahn, 62, faces a June 6 hearing in New York in which he is expected to plead not guilty to charges of attacking a cleaning woman in a luxury hotel.

Both men have protested their innocence but their sex lives have been under intense public scrutiny for years.

Strauss-Kahn has admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate in the past and Berlusconi has been accused by his now former wife of trying to get young women into parliament purely based on their looks.

Berlusconi, she said, was like "a dragon to whom virgins offer themselves."

But Giuliano Ferrara, a Berlusconi political strategist and chat show host, said there was "no comparison" between the two cases.

In Berlusconi's case, Ferrara said, the allegations revolved around "a group of pretty girls who were delighted to have such a wonderful host."

Isabella Merzagora, a criminologist at Milan University also made the important distinction that in Berlusconi's case there was no suggestion of "coercion" in the sexual relationship.

Strauss-Kahn faces between 15 and 74 years in prison if convicted.

Berlusconi's charges would carry a maximum sentence of three years for prostitution of a minor and 10 years in prison for abuse of power.

Marzano said she also detected a certain "machismo in the reactions" to the Strauss-Kahn scandal in France, where the former IMF boss was also seen as a favourite to replace Nicolas Sarkozy in a presidential election next year.

The French "are always ready to give lessons but they have to ask themselves about the image of women in France in the light of the affair," she said.

The situation was different in Italy where the situation for women "is particularly degraded," she said, added: "Men are proud of being machos."

In both France and Italy, Marzano said, the scandals have been accompanied by a type of "victimhood" for the men involved.

In the aftermath of the Strauss-Kahn scandal, opinion polls revealed that a majority of French people believed he had been set up.

In Italy, Berlusconi harangues prosecutors on an almost daily basis, calling them "Communist Taliban" and "a cancer" of society.

In a scathing editorial entitled "Berluskahn," Marco Travaglio, an investigative journalist fiercely critical of Berlusconi, suggested that Strauss-Kahn should perhaps "give up on France and move to Italy.

"The minister of justice will put out a law decriminalising rape and your lawyer will say you were only the 'end user' of the maid" -- a reference to a phrase used by Berlusconi's defence in a previous call-girl scandal.

"Only here would you still have a great political future," he said.

© 2011 AFP

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