When the MeToo movement swept across the world, snaring Hollywood producers and British business tycoons, France appeared slow to catch on.
hile in America hundreds of often powerful abusers had been charged or forced to step down, there was no such purge in France — with some suggesting the art of Gallic gallantry somehow afforded it special status.
That era now appears well and truly over. Today, barely a week goes by without French front pages dissecting the latest allegations of sexual abuse levelled against a prominent figure.
Senior ministers, actors and an anchorman are all being dragged over the coals, often by multiple women.
At the forefront of this judicial onslaught is Elodie Tuaillon-Hibon — a feminist lawyer who has helped women rekindle allegations of rape against current interior minister Gerald Darmanin and actor Gerard Depardieu: two of the most high-profile men embroiled in sex scandals. Both deny wrongdoing.
Speaking from her Paris office, the 46-year-old lawyer blamed French culture for affording alleged abusers special protection under the myth of the “Latin lover” and the country’s famed “culture of seduction”.
But that is all changing, not least because of her own personal experiences.
“In what the women tell me, in what I see or what I hear, there are many things I have lived through myself,” she said. During her 20-year career, she revealed, she had been sexually harassed by one of her clients. She stumbled upon a male colleague’s payslip — only to discover he was earning two-and-a-half times her salary. She was asked in a job interview whether she intended to have children, and told it could be an issue.
Being an openly feminist lawyer in France is not always easy. She has been called “hysterical” in the courtroom — and often has to fight tooth and nail to get her clients’ complaints heard.
But each successful prosecution convinces more women to come forward. According to the ministry of the interior, nearly 23,000 people reported having been raped in 2019 — a 20pc rise compared with 2018 which has largely been attributed to MeToo.
Ms Tuaillon-Hibon has become the scourge of powerful Frenchmen who thought their status would get them off the hook, going after them sometimes years after dismissals by the justice system.
Take Georges Tron, a former minister in the Sarkozy regime, accused by two former employees of gang rape and sexual assaults. In February last, after a 10-year fight for justice, he became the first former minister to be put behind bars for rape in modern French history.
Charges against him had initially been dropped, in 2018, when a court decided there was insufficient evidence that the women had not consented to the sexual acts — a common fate for rape cases in France, no matter the prominence of the alleged perpetrator.
But Ms Tuaillon-Hibon, who represented a women’s rights group in the case, helped revive the allegation.
In a judicial bombshell, the 63-year-old mayor was given a five-year prison sentence, two years suspended, with the court citing the “moral constraint” he held over the employee in a subordinate role. He denied the charges and has lodged an appeal with France’s highest court.
Mr Darmanin, the interior minister, was hailed as a rising star in the Macron government after his promotion last summer. He was questioned in March by judges over accusations of rape and abuse of power and was granted assisted witness status, one step short of bringing charges against him.
Mr Darmanin (38) insists he is the victim of a “manhunt” in a case that dates back more than a decade — but the allegations have undermined the political ambitions of a man once seen as presidential material.
Prosecutors dismissed the case twice and a judge once. This month, however, the Paris appeal court ordered further investigations, leaving Mr Darmanin to face calls for his dismissal.
Gerard Depardieu (72) was charged with rape and sexual assault of an actress at his home in February.
An initial investigation was dropped in 2019 for lack of evidence — but it was reopened last summer, leading to criminal charges being filed in December.
When the first wave of MeToo took hold around the world, 100 prominent women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, wrote an open letter defending the “right to bother women” in early 2019. “Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a macho aggression,” it read.
The days when such claims could be used as a fig leaf for abuse are now long gone, said Ms Tuaillon-Hibon.
© Telegraph Media Group (2021)
Telegraph Media Group Limited