Women in French politics finally speak out about sexual harassment

The World
In France, leading politician quits post after harassment investigation

Denis Baupin (L), French National Assembly vice-president and former Green Party EELV head Emmanuelle Cosse (R), arrive to attend the "France is committed to climate. Go COP21 !" event at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, September 10, 2015. Lawmaker Baupin, who is married to Cosse, current Minister of Housing and Sustainable Homes, resigned May 9 from his post of vice-president of the national assembly after being accused of sexual harrassment by party officals and lawmakers, a first in a country where such accusations are usually kept under wraps. 

Charles Platiau/Reuters

Last week, a damning investigation by two French media outlets revealed a number of allegations of sexual harassment against a deputy speaker of the French National Assembly and a former leader of Europe Écologie-Les Verts (Green Party).

Denis Baupin was forced to resign. But he is vehemently denying all the charges.

As part of the investigation by France Inter (French public radio) and Mediapart (an online news site), a number of women came out against Baupin, four of them publicly.

The result could be a turning point in the history of women’s rights in the country.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, a media campaign was rolled out against violence perpetrated on women. As part of this campaign, political figures, including Baupin, took photographs of themselves wearing red lipstick in a show of solidarity.

For Sandrine Rousseau, an alleged victim of Baupin, seeing that picture of Baupin on Twitter was the last straw, and she decided to come forward.

Rousseau, a current spokesperson for the Green Party, said that in 2011, Baupin pushed her against a wall in a hallway, grabbed her breasts and tried to kiss her. By the time she was willing to talk about it publicly, the three-year statute of limitations had already expired. (Some say that statute should be extended.)

Among the other women who testified against Baupin, some said they received text messages of a sexual nature from him. EELV Green Party representative Annie Lahmer said that in the late 1990s, Baupin literally chased her around their offices, and when she confronted him and turned down his sexual overtures, he told her she would never rise through the ranks of the party.

Lahmer lamented that even within the Green Party, a supposedly progressive-minded, pro-women, pro-feminist party, “we can’t tell the difference between someone who’s harassing you and someone who’s seducing you,” she said. “We hear: ‘If they haven’t sued, that means it isn’t true.'”

French culture touts itself as perhaps more sexually permissive and open than many other countries and there has always been a sense that it’s acceptable to be bold about sexuality in French society. You see it a lot in advertising and film for example. It’s been part of the culture for hundreds of years. While some men may have trouble distinguishing between what’s acceptable and what’s not, most do know that groping a female colleague against her will is clearly not. But there’s such a history of shaming of women who come forward and of impunity that most may believe they’ll get away with it.

Last week, the day after accusations against Baupin came out, Cécile Duflot, a member of the French National Assembly — and a former minister of housing and former leader in the Green Party — delivered powerful testimony on national television.

She said she had heard female colleagues complain about Baupin for years. She said that she had told at least one of them that if they came forward, she would support them. But women were too scared to do so. The fact that Baupin’s wife was also a figurehead in that party made it even more intimidating for women to consider speaking out. Duflot said it is always extremely complicated for women in politics, who are supposed to represent power, confidence and serenity, to do so.

“You have to realize that in that world,” she said, “if you put yourself in a victim’s situation or risk passing as a ‘sourpuss’ who ‘doesn’t get it,’ who is ‘stuck-up,’ who is ‘a lecturing feminist,’ that is a handicap,” she said, implying this is what happens to women who speak out. “In a world where you have to project self-confidence, if you recognize publicly that you are a victim, you look weak. So that’s why women are right to finally speak up now, and that’s why this issue needs to be considered collectively, to send shame back to the other side. Because that is the reality.”

Then, she said she herself had been a victim of sexual harassment in her career, (none of it involving Baupin.) “One in five women is being harassed at work,” she said, adding that 95 percent of those who speak out lose their job as a result, either from layoffs or by quitting.

French commentator Agnès Poirier wrote that at one point, in France, “the legal notion of sexual harassment, or for that matter moral harassment, was deemed a thing invented by the Americans to make human relations miserable.” But we may be now moving away from this sentiment, and realizing there is a real problem in France that is endemic, at least in politics.

Having lived in the United States for many years, I can say that there are clearer boundaries about harassment in general there, perhaps as a result of a stronger feminist movement. So men may be more aware of what constitutes sexual harassment for obvious moral reasons, but also legal ones. In the US where you can sue for almost anything, the workplace tends to be well prepared and put clear policies in place to protect its female and male employees, and if nothing else, to avoid damaging scandals and potential costly lawsuits.

I lived in the US in 2011 when French politician and International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was charged with sexual assault on a chambermaid in his New York City hotel. It was a major scandal because Strauss-Kahn was perceived as a powerful presidential candidate in France. He was cleared of those charges because of discrepancies in the maid’s testimony. In France at the time, many women came forward against Strauss-Kahn and their accusations fed a needed conversation about sexual harassment. And even though he has been involved in more sex scandals since, there’s the sentiment that they were perceived more like a personal issue about the man, than a systemic one.

But the culture of silence and shaming that has been plaguing the political sphere may be about to change.

On national television, former minister Cécile Duflot said she admires the female politicians who came forward.

“I am thankful to these women who spoke out and their courage, because it’s so much more difficult to do this in political circles,” she said, “and at the same time it’s necessary, because it is the French National Assembly, this is where you vote laws, including laws against sexual harassment, and this is where it is happening.”

And she added that in light of the allegations “what is happening to us is terrible because it is incredibly violent for all of us, but it is also good news, because it is the end of the Omerta.”

Omerta, an Italian word for code of silence among the mafia, was used to refer to the massive coverup in the church pedophilia scandal in France, and has also been used to refer to the massive code of silence clouding the issue of sexual harassment.

Last week, the daily Liberation printed a large headline on its front page reading: “Let’s lift the omerta.” And on Sunday, in the daily Journal du Dimanche, 17 former female ministers who said they have all been victims of sexism vowed to always speak out from now on. Speaking about women who have ventured into professional areas that were until recently reserved to men, they wrote: "It’s not up to women to adjust ... it’s up to men to change their behavior."

And they added: “This is the end of impunity.”