“We Won’t Shut Up”: Revolt Against Harassment Grips French Politics

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Anne Hidalgo, the first woman mayor of Paris in its two thousand year history, didn’t appreciate the joke a fellow mayor made behind her back at the building site of a new rapid transit line.

The men eagerly gathered around her, quipped Philippe Pemezec, acted like they were going to get blowjobs.

So she named and shamed him. “Let’s grow your audience,” she wrote in an open letter posted on twitter, “so that everyone can enjoy your sense of humor, your worldview and your dignified conduct as mayor.”

Hidalgo, a prominent Socialist, has joined the revolt of female politicians in France who are “breaking the silence” and resorting to public humiliation to call out male colleagues on their sexism and sexual harassment. “I have not shut up, nor will I ever,” she tweeted.

Going public about sexual harassment has been as un-French as the imported words  – le naming and shaming – until now. It has taken women in French politics a long time, in some cases decades, to speak out. But it is reaching a crescendo as more and more women in public life turn on male colleagues. Accusations by a chorus of women forced Denis Baupin, deputy speaker of France’s National Assembly, to step down in May. Three of them, members of Baupin’s own political party, have filed a lawsuit against him.

Such an act is normally unthinkable for women in politics: “…in that world,” explained former housing minister Cécile Duflot in an interview on French public television, “if you are classed as a victim or you’re seen as a cold fish who doesn’t get it, who’s stuck-up, who’s a nagging feminist, it’s a handicap….you have to project self-confidence.” Duflot is the former secretary of Baupin’s party, the Greens (Europe Ecologie Les Verts, or EELV).

French parliament unanimously passed a law in 2012 that penalizes an act of sexual harassment with a 30,000 euro fine and up to two years in jail or 45,000 euros and three years if the victim is an employee, a minor or disabled. “The hunting license of sexual predators has been revoked,” ran a headline in the daily newspaper Libération.

But the law hardly seems to have changed the assumption by many male leaders that political office comes with sexual prerogatives.

According to Duflot, “The men voting for a law against sexual harassment practice it themselves.”

Lipstick on a sexist pig

A tweet – Baupin’s own – led to his disgrace.

On March 8th, he commemorated International Women’s Day by tweeting a photo of himself and several other French politicians posing in lipstick. This is an annual campaign – Mettez du rouge/Put your red on” to protest violence against women.

Elen Debost, an assistant to the mayor of Le Mans who once worked for Baupin, said it literally made her sick to see him presenting himself as a defender of women’s rights.

“I actually had to go vomit. And then I posted it on Facebook.” Speaking to France Inter radio, she recalled the relentless sexual harassment and the  “hundred messages” in which he shared fantasies like sodomizing her in thigh high boots.  “I thought that by keeping silent, I would become an accomplice.…putting other women in danger.”

Sandrine Rousseau, the EELV spokesperson also saw the photo: “It hit me like an electroshock.” She told France Inter and the news website Mediapart that she had to fight him off at a party conference in 2011. “He pinned me against the wall groping my breasts and tried to kiss me. I pushed him away violently.”

A total of 13 female colleagues now say Baupin groped or harassed them, sometimes repeatedly. The accusations cover a period of 15 years. Apparently, his serial harassment was an open secret. Women warned each other to lock their office doors when working late – if Baupin was around – and to avoid getting into an elevator alone with “hand-up-your-ass Denis,” also known as the “octopus.”

After the Paris prosecutor’s office announced it had opened an investigation, Baupin resigned as deputy speaker. He says he needs to prepare his defense. He still has a seat in parliament.

It’s not clear if any investigation or lawsuit will result in a prosecution. There is a three-year statute of limitations on charges of sexual harassment or aggression (but some are more recent).  Baupin says the accusations are politically motivated and is suing France Inter and Mediapart for defamation.

Baupin’s lawyer, Emmanuel Pierrat, dismisses the groping and sexting as attempts, perhaps a little blunt, at seduction. “His character flaw is that he likes to seduce,” he insisted, speaking on French National Television. “Are we going to ban seduction from French politics? In a métier whose very essence is seduction?”

End the omerta

In the wake of Baupin’s resignation, Libération published a petition on its front page – signed by hundreds of politicians and Green party members – calling for an end to the “Omerta,” the Mafia-like code of silence about sexual harassment in the male-dominated world of politics.

The same week, 17 former women ministers from the political Left, Right and Center published a manifesto – Impunity is over – in the weekly, Le journal du dimanche. The group, which includes current IMF chief Christine Lagarde, calls on “all victims of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual aggression to speak out and complain.”

“Enough is enough,” they write. “The law of silence cannot prevail any longer.”  

Women must fight sexism collectively, they explain, because a woman who speaks up on her own usually loses her job and receives little compensation. Unlike in the US, the French legal system doesn’t allow for punitive damages.

Some of France’s most powerful and successful women give examples of what they’ve put up with over the years: “Your skirt is too long, you need to shorten it,” says a male colleague.”Are you wearing a thong?” asks another. Being asked to describe a female colleague: “Aside from the great breasts, what’s she like?” Being reassured, when discussing a rape case, “It wouldn’t happen to you.”

That’s the verbal part. The physical part includes being groped on the thighs or enduring pairs of male hands on one’s waist “feeling the fit.”

It’s not up to women to adapt to this environment,”  says the manifesto. “It’s the behavior of certain men that must change….There is no more impunity.”

Welcome to New York

The lid on the widespread sexism in French politics first came off in the United States in 2011 with the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in New York.

DSK, as he is referred to in France, seemed destined for the French presidency. At the time he was head of International Monetary Fund, dealing with a global and financial economic crisis. Overnight, he wound up in prison, accused of assaulting a hotel housemaid.

Even though the criminal case was dropped (a civil case was settled out of court), the details that emerged about DSK, a self-confessed sex-addict, made French male politicos seem like a gang of aging horndogs as desperate to satisfy kinky desires as political ambition. That image was reinforced by a movie, Welcome to New York, with Gerard Depardieu perfectly cast as DSK opposite Jacqueline Bisset, filling in for DSK’s enabling wife, Anne Sinclair. A second movie – The Libertine starring Johnny Depp and Marion Cotillard – is on the way.

Some French women complain there was no “before and after” DSK. In another  manifesto, in Libération (Get Your Paws Off!), a group of female journalists lamented a year ago: “As long as political power is concentrated in the hands of heterosexual men, mostly in their 60s, nothing will change.”

But Abigail Saguy, a sociologist and author of a book comparing sexual harassment in France and the US, disagrees: “The Dominque Strauss Kahn affair was a teaching moment for the French.”

She points out that outrage over the way a French politician was treated by US courts and media gave way to collective anger as his powerful male friends in France seemed to defend, almost casually, his prerogative to jump a hotel maid. Protesting women took to the streets waving signs that said: “We are all chambermaids.”

“The conversations about consent and assault raised awareness of sexual harassment,” says Saguy. “People began to say, ‘This is not my France.'”

But French parliament is like any other workplace in France, she says, in one important respect  – “there are few consequences for employers if sexual harassment occurs. In the US there are corporate regulations and guidelines and policies – not perfect and there’s plenty to criticize – but it is one way outside of the courts to draw attention to the issue.”

Ultimately, she adds, “This public naming and shaming and blaming has to happen to change attitudes. There’s only so much a law can do, only so much you can do in the courts.”

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