PARIS (AP) — Rape accusations against a newly named French minister have galvanized a movement aimed at exposing sexual misconduct in French politics and encouraging women to speak out against abusers.
Left-wing groups are using the issue to rally opposition to President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party in next month’s legislative election. But French politicians across the spectrum have been accused of sexual abuses in recent years, and the movement is seeking a broad reckoning to hold abusers accountable.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in Paris on Tuesday to decry a “government of shame,” and call for the resignation of Damien Abad, the new minister for the disabled and social welfare, who is accused of rape by two women. He denies wrongdoing.
“To name as minister a man who was accused of rape is an offense to women,” said Anne-Claire Boux, a deputy mayor of Paris from the Greens party.
The demonstration was organized by a new left-wing feminist group called the Observatory on Sexual and Gender-based Violence in Politics, which stemmed from an online movement dubbed #MeTooPolitique. Fiona Texeire, a political assistant and co-founder of the observatory, said it aims to denounce the “systemic nature” of the issue and to get political parties to act against it.
Activists say France has taken too long to address sexism and sexual misconduct in politics, business and other spheres. Many in France dismissed the U.S.-led #MeToo movement as American-style puritanism. French politicians’ private lives were long kept out of public discourse.
But sexual and gender-based violence is an increasingly important issue in France, and Abad’s appointment added fuel to the fire.
The weekend before the first Cabinet meeting of Macron’s new government, French media revealed two accusations targeting Abad. One woman filed two complaints against Abad, in 2012 and 2017, but they were dropped for lack of evidence. Another woman said Abad raped her while she was unconscious, but hasn’t pressed any charges.
Abad strongly denied the accusations, saying the alleged acts were “simply impossible for me due to my disability.” Abad was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that affects the joints and muscles.
Government spokeswoman Olivia Gregoire vowed “zero tolerance” for sexual misconduct by ministers but stressed that it’s up to the justice system to establish the truth.
France’s interior minister has also faced a legal complaint for rape, but he said the sex was consensual and prosecutors asked for the case to be dropped. A former environment minister under Macron was questioned this week as part of a rape investigation; he denies wrongdoing.
“It sends a message to victims: impunity stands at the uppermost political level,” said one protester at this week’s demonstration, who said she had been raped but her legal complaint was later thrown out. The Associated Press generally does not name victims of sexual violence.
Protesters welcomed the observatory’s work to call out abuse.
“Sexism is part and parcel of politics: people with wandering hands, insistent looks, inappropriate remarks. We need such institutions to break the silence, because most of the time women who are confronted with sexual misconduct feel alone,” said Boux.
Texeire said the observatory ultimately aims at prevention.
“Politics is still a man’s world,” said Texeire, noting that French women only won the right to vote in 1944, well after many other countries. “Since then, the exclusion of women in politics has stayed the norm: 80% of mayors are men, 60% of parliament members are men. We are far from equality.”
The group is also pushing for a more institutionalized way of dealing with sexual abuse in politics.
Macron’s party Renaissance has a special unit dedicated to victims of harassment and sexual misconduct since 2020. The Parliament has also a dedicated unit since 2020, but it’s generally left up to political parties to police themselves.
Macron has repeatedly promised to support women’s rights and fight violence against women. He appointed Elisabeth Borne as prime minister last week, only the second woman in French history to hold the post. His government has reinforced the protection of victims and sanctions against abusers to encourage women to speak out.
But Macron’s critics say the latest accusations show that his government hasn’t done enough.
The observatory is run by women and men from Nupes, a left-wing coalition formed to challenge Macron’s party in June’s legislative election, but they have invited people from all political parties to join “because this issue concerns everyone,” said Texeire.
Annie Lahmer, a regional counselor for the Greens party, was one of four women who accused former Greens lawmaker Denis Baupin of sexual misconduct. Baupin then accused the women of defamation, but lost his case.
“When I testified in 2016 in the press about Baupin’s behavior, people said he was just flirting with insistence. They didn’t realize he was in a position of power,” said Lahmer, who joined this week’s protest. “Where is the line between seduction and harassment? We need to question the system as a whole.”