Late Edition – Final Foreign, Monday, May 23, 2016 1336 mots, p. A 6 – MEMO FROM FRANCE
By ADAM NOSSITER; Benoit Morenne contributed reporting.
PARIS — With its guffawing masculine hilarity, the National Assembly, France’s lower house of Parliament, would not be put to shame by the most boisterous American state legislature. The marble-and-velvet setting may be more elegant, but the rowdy laughter says the same thing: Men dominate.
Over the last week, that male world has been shaken. The Assembly’s vice president, Denis Baupin, was forced to resign after several women came forward publicly with accusations that he had sexually harassed numerous female colleagues for years.
One said Mr. Baupin had pushed her against a wall, grabbed one of her breasts and tried to force a kiss. Others said he had sent explicit text messages. Another said he had chased her around a desk. Still another, that he had pinched her buttocks.
The Paris prosecutor has announced a criminal investigation. Mr. Baupin, 53, a representative from Paris and a rising star of the Green Party, has complained about a « setup » and has threatened to sue the media outlets that broke the story.
Nonetheless, the charges have set off soul-searching over whether anything has changed in France since the downfall of a former International Monetary Fund boss, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, after a New York hotel housekeeper accused him of assault in 2011.
That, it seems, did nothing to stop Mr. Baupin. But in the country where even the word for « bawdy joke » — gauloiserie — recalls the ancestral homeland, Gaul, there are indications that this time some things may be different.
On the one hand, Mr. Baupin’s behavior was an open secret. Since the allegations have become public, ranking Green Party members have shamefacedly acknowledged knowing of Mr. Baupin’s bad behavior for years. Women knew never to get in an elevator alone with him or go to his office unaccompanied. They nicknamed him « the Octopus. »
The men were apparently unfazed, however. « Ah, so he’s started up again? » a male Green Party member said nonchalantly after a shocked woman recounted an assault against her in 2011, according to the news website Mediapart.
Yet at the time of his arrest in New York, Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who was widely seen as a contender for president, had plenty of defenders. « Nobody has been killed, » Jack Lang, a former Socialist culture minister, had said.
Mr. Strauss-Kahn, known as DSK, defended himself in a French court with claims that he was merely a « libertine » pursuing an alternative lifestyle. (He later settled out of court for what was reportedly a substantial sum.)
Even if few male French politicians have stepped up to denounce Mr. Baupin, nobody is defending him, either. The prominent right-leaning philosopher Alain Finkielkraut grumbled on the radio that « France is Americanizing itself in a hurry, » but added that he condemned « unseemly actions. »
The affair has proved embarrassing to the male-dominated political class — 75 percent of the Assembly’s members are men — not least because Mr. Baupin was a leading member of the Greens, one of France’s most feminist-friendly political parties.
Now, even his wife, Emmanuelle Cosse, also a Green and the minister of housing in the current Socialist government, has been accused by at least one other party member of covering up for her husband. She has denied it.
Sandrine Rousseau, a spokeswoman for the Greens, told France Inter radio and Mediapart about her experience in 2011 during a party meeting.
« I took a break, » she said. « In the corridor along the hall, along comes Denis Baupin. He pushed me up against the wall while grabbing my breast. He tried to kiss me. I pushed him away forcefully. At that point I was so shocked I didn’t say anything. »
Elen Debost, another of the four women who came forward by name to expose him, wrote in an open letter to the Greens that she was « nauseated » and « vomited » after seeing him in a March photo jauntily wearing lipstick, in supposed support of International Women’s Day.
The condemnation has been stark. Prominent Frenchwomen in politics — 16 former ministers — have made a public vow to « never shut up again, » writing in the Sunday newspaper Journal du Dimanche. This time « it’s too much, » the women wrote. « Omertà and the law of silence are no longer possible. »
« The behavior of some men must change, » they wrote.
Some of Mr. Baupin’s victims already perceive a change. « There is a difference, » said Annie Lahmer, a Paris regional councilor who said Mr. Baupin had chased her around a desk in the late 1990s.
« Bartolone asked him to resign immediately, even though this had just happened, » Ms. Lahmer added, referring to the president of the National Assembly, Claude Bartolone.
In addition, « people are talking more freely now » than they did after the DSK affair, she said. « For Baupin, nobody is saying he’s just a libertine. He’s got no defenders. We’ve passed to another stage. »
After Ms. Lahmer spurned his advances, Mr. Baupin told her angrily, « You will never have a position in the party, » she told France Inter radio.
« There’s a big difference » between the reaction to Mr. Baupin and to Mr. Strauss-Kahn, said Isabelle Attard, a representative at the Assembly, who told the journalists who broke the story that she had received numerous salacious texts from Mr. Baupin in 2012 and 2013.
« This is a group of women who are testifying and who have the same need to say, ‘Never again,’ particularly after the publication of that photo » showing Mr. Baupin with lipstick, Ms. Attard said. « It’s not just one woman alone. One woman alone would never have come forward. »
How could the pro-feminist Greens have ignored Mr. Baupin’s transgressions for so long?
« Because it’s a feminist party, there was shame about having this man in the party, » Ms. Attard said. « It was impossible to acknowledge that a man like Denis Baupin could be in the ranks. »
A year ago, a collective of female political journalists in France created a stir by denouncing a culture of systematic sexual harassment in French politics, from frequent text messages along the lines of « one scoop equals one drink » to explicit comments about dress and low necklines.
« We thought the DSK affair had shifted the lines, and that macho habits, the symbols of dated political tackiness, were on the way to extinction. Alas, » the women wrote in the newspaper Libération.
« As long as politics is very much in the hands of heterosexual men more or less in their 60s, nothing will change, » they wrote. A quick look around the Assembly, overwhelmingly male, confirms that this is still the case.
Yet one of the godmothers of French feminism, Yvette Roudy, who was the women’s rights minister under the Socialist president François Mitterrand and who translated Betty Friedan in the 1960s, saw reason for hope in the wake of the Baupin affair.
« We think this could advance the rights of women, » Ms. Roudy said in a phone interview. « We certainly hope so. What is good is that today women are reacting. They are defending themselves. »
Ms. Roudy’s cautious optimism was shared by at least one political analyst who specializes in women in politics.
« Not a single political personality or intellectual has dared to excuse the conduct of Denis Baupin, » said Magali Della Sudda of the University of Bordeaux. « Nobody is using the argument of seduction. »
« Having more women on the benches of the Assembly, and in other political forums, means that some behaviors are simply not tolerated, » Ms. Della Sudda added. In the Baupin affair, « what is really interesting is that it allowed women to denounce these practices, and in public, » she said. « That’s new. »Magali Della Sudda, researcher at the CNRS Sciences Po Bordeaux-University of Bordeaux