The trial of former French Green MP Denis Baupin in early February 2019 may have marked the beginning of a new age of equality. Although Baupin is bringing a defamation suit against the women and media outlets that accused him of sexual assault and harassment, the tide seems to have turned against him. Meanwhile, the #MeToo movement has arrived, and the media is heralding a new era. Will the trial mark a milestone for French political institutions and a broader awakening in society?

In May 2016 when major French media outlets published an investigation into accusations of sexual violence by a Green politician, the Harvey Weinstein scandal was still a long way away. For years Europe Ecology – The Greens (EELV) had set the best example in France in terms of gender parity. And its members unanimously thought that when it came to equality, the job was done. The revelations unmasked a very different reality however, casting a stark light on sexism in the party. Though gender parity is vital for the equal representation of men and women in institutions, it falls far short of ensuring that women can participate in politics on a truly equal footing.

The Baupin scandal: #MeToo before #MeToo

What was the scandal? In 2016, Denis Baupin was a Green MP and vice-president of the National Assembly, renowned for his work in the area of energy transition. A former deputy-mayor of Paris in charge of transport, he had notably worked as an adviser to a former environment minister and was heavily involved in Green politics in France.

Media outlets France Inter and Mediapart first broke the news that women were accusing Baupin of sexual assault and harassment in May 2016. Four Green politicians (Sandrine Rousseau, Annie Lahmer, Elen Debost, and Isabelle Attard) reported actions that had taken place between 1998 and 2013. Their testimonies were backed up by accusations from four other women who remained anonymous. The articles’ publication caused a stir, and soon a public prosecutor opened an enquiry and more people contacted the journalists. Within a few months, a total of fourteen women had reported sexual violence by the same man over a period of more than twenty years, and seven of the women had waived anonymity.

In the wake of the revelations, four of them filed an official complaint, although it was decided in March 2017 that no charges would be brought as the statute of limitations applied. However, in a rare statement, the public prosecutor recognised that the accusations were “measured, consistent and corroborated by testimony”, and that the actions carried out were “likely to be classified as criminal”. Many dozens of witnesses were heard during the course of the legal investigation.

As is often the case in this type of scandal, Baupin filed a lawsuit for defamation against the journalists and his accusers after the articles were published. This case came to court in February 2019, and although the verdict is not expected until April, the case made by the prosecutor, Florence Gilbert, has gone a long way towards marking a historic change in the handling of sexual violence in the media and above all in society. The only thing this trial will have achieved is to highlight the urgent need to fight the silence of victims of sexual violence”, she stated in her closing argument. Gilbert requested the acquittal of all the defendants.

The “freedom to bother” or the French backlash

When the #MeToo movement exploded onto the international scene in 2017, the backlash in France was particularly strong. In many countries the scale of the movement triggered debates, enquiries or resignations. Instead, the reaction against #BalanceTonPorc, the Francophone equivalent to #MeToo, revealed the depth of France’s conservatism. When women dare to publicly denounce their aggressors, smear campaigns are started against them in the media and on social networks. Their personalities are criticised, details of their love lives are published, their testimonies are questioned and minimised, and their careers are blocked. The cost and duration of legal proceedings deter many women from using this avenue to make themselves heard.

Meanwhile, the men they accuse are publicly defended by key institutions. Many significant figures in culture, politics, and the media have stayed in their jobs after being accused, as in the case of the journalist Frédéric Haziza. In the cultural sphere, journalists report that it is difficult to investigate and find witness statements, as in the case of accusations against the director Luc Besson. In politics, 20 female former assistants and colleagues signed an open letter of support for former Minister Pierre Joxe, the former Minister Nicolas Hulot was officially defended by the secretary of state for gender equality; and the Minister Gérald Darmanin received a standing ovation from MPs.

Finally, in January 2018, a group of 100 women headed by the actress Catherine Deneuve published an open letter defending the “freedom to bother” (“la liberté d’importuner”), and against the “hatred of men”. Feminists frequently suffer a backlash, but the international cachet of French culture gives it particular weight.

When women dare to publicly denounce their aggressors, smear campaigns are started against them in the media and on social networks.

Apart from ‘Rubygate’ (involving Silvio Berlusconi) and Monica Lewinsky scandal (involving Bill Clinton), the first major sex scandal in contemporary politics was in 2011 in New York and implicated Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the socialist former French minister and then-director general of the International Monetary Fund. “DSK” was defended in the French media by many political figures who played down what had happened in highly classist and sexist terms. The victim, Nafissatou Diallo, was a black chambermaid. The case’s high level of international media coverage largely eclipsed another simultaneous scandal also involving Strauss-Kahn: an attempted rape reported by journalist Tristane Banon. Her case was the only one against Strauss-Kahn in which the facts were recognised to constitute sexual assault, although it was dropped due to the statute of limitations. After her accusations, Banon suffered many attacks in the media, notably involving a political conspiracy theory.

Back in 2011, Baupin’s star was rising among the French Greens. Two of his accusers report harassment and assault taking place that year. In February 2019, during the trial, these two politicians recalled how it was extremely difficult for female politicians to be taken seriously on such issues, and they stated that they did not want to suffer the same fate as Tristane Banon, who got a “good kicking”.[1] Is it surprising, then, that it is difficult for French women – particularly female politicians – to talk openly about the gender-based violence they suffer, and for them to get justice?

Baupin, the Green Harvey Weinstein?

Sexism concerns society as a whole and not just the green movement. As a political party, EELV must learn lessons for the future by understanding the factors that made it possible for the women to speak out and the journalistic investigation to be published.

First of all, the women who agreed to testify publicly did so in groups; nobody risked exposing their identity alone. Furthermore, the first four of them (Rousseau, Lahmer, Debost, and Attard) were not activists or supporters, but national-level party officials and locally and nationally elected representatives. Their status helped them to better face the media attention and gave them a certain financial and social security, as they were guaranteed a minimum level of internal and external support. This is one of the factors that helped them find the strength to face the consequences of making the accusations. They also later organised a solidarity network, which produced an open letter signed by more than a 1000 people who declared they were also ready to be prosecuted for defamation.

The desire to have women in positions of responsibility, partly through gender parity at all levels, may have had the opposite effect

In the solidarity networks, the victims choosing to remain anonymous include many aides that crossed Baupin’s path in various contexts. After the enquiry was published, the Chair Collaboratrice collective was created to take action against the harassment suffered by these professionals in the National Assembly and the Senate.

The spotlight focused by the trial may have increased the temptation to think that sexual violence is confined to EELV. About 15 officials (some former) from the movement have appeared in court, revealing much about internal practices. The functioning of the party in the 1990s was described as “tribal”. “Either you showed allegiance, which meant sleeping with some people, or you were nothing,” one of the defendants reported. Stéphane Sitbon-Gomez, an adviser to the former national secretary and minister Cécile Duflot, made a moving admission of guilt regarding the way in which signs from women about Baupin were handled. “The first thing I would like to say to you is that all of us knew, and we knew nearly everything. The second thing is that we did nothing”, he testified. Duflot admitted: “Under the cover of libertarian behaviour, we were very complacent about violence.” She explained: “We just didn’t understand. Being libertarian doesn’t mean attacking the liberties of others.”

Systemic violence: people can’t see the wood for the trees

The Baupin trial has demonstrated the extent to which the Greens are not exempt from the systemic nature of patriarchal violence. The testimonies of all the victims, be they anonymous or not, have shown one thing: at the time when they claim to have been attacked by Baupin, the women were in fragile personal situations. One of them said: “At that time I was the straggler in the group”, meaning the easiest one for predators to attack.

But in politics, those aiming for a position of power cannot show vulnerability. According to Duflot, it was her resilience that enabled her to have a brilliant career: “I became robust, too robust. It was a great mistake, a clear abdication of responsibility”. Trapped between their ambitions and the constraints of violence, many of the women refused to see themselves as victims for years.

Those who became aware that their experiences amounted to violence and raised the alarm internally were not listened to by party leaders. “We hid behind two excuses”, Sitbon-Gomez confessed. “One was legal: as nobody had made an official complaint, there was nothing we could do. The other was political: we believed that we were in a better position on feminism than others. That was what we told ourselves.” He added: “Every time that we as men looked away and said that we couldn’t do anything, we were at least complicit.”.

We must continue to observe the current political convergence between
feminism and green and other ecologist political parties

Others admitted that they chose to preserve the party. Indeed, for political parties, aiming for the best possible results at the next election is generally an objective that takes precedence over maintaining values and putting them consistently into practice. People thought they should close ranks and not offer an open flank for opponents to attack. From that perspective, it is never the right time to talk about problems that are not linked to the political agenda, particularly violence happening internally. It is this structural phenomenon that led the prosecutor to reject the political conspiracy theory. “If there is a political calendar, it never stops, so one could never talk about sexual violence committed by politicians.”

For EELV, the Baupin scandal called into question party practices in relation to the feminist values that it espoused. The desire to have women in positions of responsibility, partly through gender parity at all levels, may have had the opposite effect, by putting the main people concerned in a vulnerable situation, particularly in relation to their aggressors. Since then, Sandrine Rousseau, together with the party’s feminism commission, has built a mechanism to prevent sexual violence which now includes a system for raising the alarm, an investigation cell, a table of penalties, and a training organisation. Reflections on gender relations in power are ongoing. In a public intervention the same week as the trial, national secretary David Cormand questioned the party’s sincerity regarding methods to prevent violence, faced with “the increasingly brutal and male-oriented democratic debate”, as “by definition it is the big mouths who will survive in that climate”. As with all forms of social domination (race, class, sexual orientation, disability, etc.), preventing sexual violence implies the need to question behaviour on the basis of ethical principles. The mechanism put in place must still be tested, and solidarity among women built up. Nonetheless, this work could spread to other parties and help ensure nobody can put a lid on the issue.

A historic trial

The two media outlets in the US that first covered the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which triggered the #MeToo movement, were rewarded with a Pulitzer Prize in 2018. In France, the only reward was a suit for defamation. Called a “gagging procedure” by the lawyer for one of the victims, this is unfortunately quite common with accusations of sexual violence. Often if the court dismisses the case, the accused in turn attacks their accuser for defamation. In court, Edwy Plenel, director of Mediapart, said: “There is a French lock that must be broken”. Although the law governing the press is very different in France to the US, the prosecutor described the work of Mediapart and France Inter as “serious” and stated that it “does not deserve to be condemned”. Whatever the verdict, the trial has paved the way for media coverage and self-criticism by the former leaders, making the trial in Paris in February 2019 a historic one.

The French media also had its #MeToo moment during the days that followed the Baupin trial, thanks to revelations about a group of journalists suspected of harassment. In French politics, further enquiries are underway in other left-wing parties. MeTooEP, a group similar to the Chair Collaboratrice collective, was founded in the European Parliament in April 2018. Although society as a whole is undergoing change, political organisations should increasingly set an example, in so far as they claim to represent citizens. The journalistic investigation and Baupin trial have brought Greens’ questions about their handling of sexual violence into the public arena: the lessons that they learn could potentially have wider ramifications for the future. We must continue to observe the current political convergence between feminism and green and other ecologist political parties, to see whether or not it will filter through to the rest of society.

[1] These quotes come from two live tweets on the trial by Marie Barbier for l’Humanité (@Mar_Barbier) and Prisca Da Costa for Radio Parleur (@PriscaDC).

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