“I like your ass.”
“Will you become my mistress?”
“Come back to my office.”
Bottom-pinching in elevators, constant lewd text messages and threats of never working again in politics if you didn’t sleep with him: welcome to the hellish world alleged by too many women who worked with Denis Baupin, the disgraced former Vice-President of France’s National Assembly.
After eight victims went public, including four high-profile political identities who put their names and faces to explosive media testimonies of systemic sexual harassment and alleged assaults at the hands of the one-time luminary of the Greens Party (EELV) — one female politician Sandrine Rousseau the current spokesperson for the party recounting how he pinned her against the wall after a meeting, grabbed her chest and tried to violently kiss her — French politics is finally seeing the “omerta” around male politicians’ sexual aggressions and criminal assaults lifted.
“The victims speak…finally…bravo…as Women’s Minister in 1979 I was assaulted by a Senator…shame on me for remaining silent,” tweeted Monique Pelletier, the former minister in charge of women’s affairs under conservative French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, in comments that made news headlines and ricocheted in discussions on social media.
Not even French Finance Minister Michel Sapin could escape the maelstrom, issuing an apology for an “inappropriate act” during an interview with a female journalist. Dubbed #CulotteGate (PantyGate) on social media, the incident involved Sapin allegedly flicking the elastic of the reporter’s underwear – prompting fellow Socialist Delphine Batho to demand a ‘clean-up’ in the ruling party. But in a statement released in the wake of the Baupin affair, the Minister insisted it was not harassment, admitting only that he put his hand on the unnamed woman’s back and made a compliment about her clothes.
The women allegedly targeted by Baupin were provoked into direct action in March when he joined other male politicians in a photo wearing lipstick to protest violence against women for International Women’s Day.
“I saw him in the photo with lipstick and it made me feel really nauseated. I even had to vomit and then I posted it on Facebook,” testified one of Baupin’s alleged victims Elen Debost, who is the assistant Mayor of Mans.
A broad movement of women across the political spectrum, well beyond the specifics of the Baupin scandal has emerged, with increasing numbers feeling liberated to come out with their own accounts of verbal and physical abuse. They are using Twitter, Facebook, and traditional media to relate their own tales of enduring sexist “jokes,” physically aggressive “overtures” and in some cases violent attacks, from male politicians of all parties.
“When I see you, I’d like to give you a ‘Baupin’,” leered one elected official at center-right Les Republicains politician Aurore Bergé during a metropolitan council meeting outside Paris this week. It happened to be the same day the allegations broke of Baupin’s years of harassment. Another local politician joked about getting an erection around her.
“It’s gross, it’s vulgar, it’s crude, it’s pathetic,” outraged Bergé said in a Facebook post that propelled her to the front of the public debate over French politics’ sexism problem.
“They are the same age as my father…but when it happens to you, you don’t know how to react. You are stunned. You can’t move. Should you slap him ? Everyone would look at you. You don’t laugh ? Obviously you are not made for politics. And it’s funny isn’t it ? It’s just a joke after all. You look at yourself. You should never have worn this blouse. Instinctively you hide yourself. You cover yourself as if you were guilty. And as a kind of reflex, you laugh. Because we are French and therefore we must laugh at these kind of things.
“But today isn’t an ordinary day. Women have spoken. And they cannot be the only ones. Because they are not alone. And it is essential that all this stops. If there are differences of degree between the [different cases of] harassment, I don’t think it changes their nature.”
As soon as the Baupin scandal erupted an initial group of 500 women, many of them prominent in the French political world, signed an unprecedented petition that featured on the front page of Liberation newspaper saying “Let’s lift the Omerta” on speaking out against sexual violence in politics. The number of signatories has already exceeded 10,000.
However the soul-searching on the Green Left side of politics has been anguished, with leading women like Clementine Autain saying “everybody knew” for a long time about what some thought was only Baupin’s “heavy-handed” ways with women.
Police have opened an investigation into the claims against the one-time hero of the environmental left, although none of the women prior to their media revelations had gone to the authorities, having reportedly received his threats, and fearful of further career and personal repercussions regarding allegations that date back to 1998. The statute of limitations in France means complaints dating more than three years back cannot be prosecuted.
“I went to a party leader after it happened, and the response was ‘Oh, he’s started again’ and ‘Things like this happen often,’ but nothing was done,” said Rousseau. Others said they could not get a group to join in complaining so they gave up.
Baupin, 53, vigorously denied the accusations and said his lawyers would countersue. “They are lies, defamatory and have no basis in fact,” Baupin’s lawyer, Emmanuel Pierrat told The Guardian.
Baupin has resigned from his plum parliamentary post and is now under pressure to quit politics altogether, while his wife Socialist Government Housing Minister Emmanuelle Cosse has found herself accused of protecting a sexual predator.
But Isabelle Attard, the parliamentarian for Normandy’s Calvados area, and one of the women who testified for the France Inter/Mediapart investigation — she said Baupin’s incessant text message harassment of her was “a bit seductive” at the start but quickly became “smutty and salacious” — told Women in the World the anger should not be directed against the wife of the accused.
“Many of us kept silent out of consideration for her,” she said. “We didn’t want to do her harm. We wanted to protect her. She must realize that. We are not looking to do damage to Emmanuelle Cosse.”
According to Laure Bretton, political correspondent at Liberation newspaper, the seismic effect of the Baupin revelations is removing a historic taboo, although the process has been underway for several years. “Since the DSK affair in 2011, mentalities are changing, slowly but surely,” she wrote.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) was a Socialist party presidential hopeful and International Monetary Fund boss when he was was arrested after a New York hotel maid accused him of sexual assault — charges later dropped, preceding a confidential financial settlement between DSK and Nafissatou Diallo.
Then one year ago, Bretton led a campaign by 40 women political journalists, resulting in another Liberation newspaper front page demand that male politicians stop the constant harassment of females reporting on them.
“Take Your Paws Off Us,” said the headline.
“It’s unthinkable today that someone could categorize a sexual assault as ‘taking liberties with the domestic,’ or that we would consider that ‘no man died’,” Bretton argues, comparing contemporary reactions to the comments of some male politicians and media identities after DSK’s arrest. “The dress of minister Cecile Duflot, hissed at in the parliamentary chamber, the sounds of hen pecks yelled out at Green member Veronique Massonneau, again in the parliament, have led to the creation of a ‘Machoscope’ following the American ‘name and shame’ technique: We are naming the guilty so that the shame changes camps.”
However evolving mentalities didn’t stop some powerful French males on the political right from trying to wave away the Baupin revelations as just another “women’s story” or suggesting the affair proved that only the Greens Party had a problem with patterns of sexually aggressive treatment of women.
“When a woman says no, it’s no,” says Women’s Minister Laurence Rossignol.
“Timid applause, almost none of it coming from the right,” tweeted Le Monde’s parliamentary correspondent Helene Bekmezian in her live coverage of National Assembly debate on the game-changing affair that is sure to dominate French media and political discussions for a long time to come.