Female politicians are experiencing a lack of reverence from the French establishment as revelations of a crude farce sweep across the palaces of the Republic. In an outflow of resentment over the sexual harassment they have experienced, female politicians have turned their anger on their male colleagues, shaming them with tales of being chased around tables, groped and sent salacious texts. One journalist had her knickers ‘twanged’ by a senior cabinet minister.
François Hollande’s tenure seems to have failed to contain this latest form of lewd behaviour towards female MPs, staffers and councillors who have now begun an offensive against the ways of les hommes politiques and the impunity that has continued to shield them despite the French awareness of sexual harassment.
The trigger was the exposure of Denis Baupin, 53, a deputy speaker at Parliament who allegedly assaulted and harassed female colleagues. Unexpectedly, eight of the victims went public with their tales, forcing his resignation as speaker but not as an MP with the Green Party. A police enquiry has opened; Mr Baupin denies everything.
Old habits of hanky-panky, not unusual in France, were supposed to have been banished in 2011 with the disgrace of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the socialist who headed the International Monetary Fund until he was charged with assaulting a hotel maid in New York. As a result, the politicians promised to end the tolerance of sexual predators in their midst but obviously little has changed.
The victims have now hit out more openly and with renewed vigour; 500 politicians, staff and activists have called to end ‘the honour code of silence over sexual violence’ in the political workplace. Mr Baupin has become the symbol of the propensity of les élus – elected officer holders of all parties – to treat women as fair game for their lust.
Emmanuelle Cosse, Mr Baupin’s wife and the housing minister in the Hollande administration, seems to be the only person unaware of his reputation. Sandrine Rousseau, a member of the Green leadership, described being accosted by Mr Baupin in a corridor. ‘He pressed me against the wall holding my breasts and tried to kiss me,’ she said. Annie Lahmer, a Paris regional councillor, said that she received text messages from the MP ‘twenty-four hours a day.’ She also alleges: ‘He once chased me around a big office. I said, “I will not have sex with you.” And he replied, “in that case Annie, you’ll never have any post in this party.”’
Michel Sabin the finance minister and one of Mr Hollande’s closest friends was also outed. After earlier denials, he admitted ‘inappropriately touching’ the back of a woman journalist at the Davos World Economic Forum. However, he denied a report published in a book that alleged he had twanged her pants when she bent down. He faces no further action over the incident.
In the country at large, tolerance of abusive macho behaviour has faded. A poll last week reported that 80% of the French believe that the country is too lenient toward harassment. Such enlightenment has yet to arrive in Parliament, however.
One unnamed MP was overheard loudly telling his young female assistant to go out and buy him a packet of extra-large condoms. A reputation as a lothario remains an asset and the fine line between the seduction of subordinates and assault is only now coming to light.
The last presidents – Giscard d’Estaing, Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy – were known for their dalliances with women in the workplace. Before he became president, Jacques Chirac’s fondness for quick encounters with his female aids earned him the nickname ‘Mr 3 Minutes – shower included’. At dinners he liked to raise his glass with an old cavalry toast: ‘To our horses, our women and those who mount them.’
France is, in my view, a hotbed of workplace misconduct; male politicians have always treated women as their subordinates and believe that sexual favours were to be gifted to them as a matter of course. When I interviewed Édith Cresson who was once a mistress of President Mitterrand – who then appointed her as prime minister – she as much admitted to me that this was invariably almost an accepted tradition.
Well, well, who would have thought that such abominable practices could still exist?