Politically, there’s much they disagree on. But 17 prominent French women, former government ministers representing a wide range of political parties, have stepped forward to announce there’s one belief they all share:
Sexual harassment is not OK.
For the past week, sexual harassment — particularly in the world of politics — has been fiercely discussed in France. Last Monday, a piece of investigative journalism was published accusing Denis Baupin, the deputy speaker of France’s national assembly, of multiple instances of harassment.
Baupin is accused — among other things — of sending lewd text messages to other members of Parliament and making sexually charged comments to women during meetings. One politician in his party said she received about a hundred harassing text messages, including one in which Baupin said he’d like to sodomize her, The Guardian reports.
Sandrine Rousseau, spokeswoman for Baupin’s political party, says that during a break in a meeting, he slammed her against the wall in a hallway, grabbed her breasts and tried to kiss her.
“I pushed him away, but I was so shocked I couldn’t even speak,” Rousseau said.
NPR’s Eleanor Beardsley reports the incident allegedly occurred in 2011.
“Rousseau says she didn’t file a complaint at the time because she says she felt fragile, guilty and alone and didn’t want to jeopardize her career,” Eleanor says. “But now, there are signs that the culture is changing.”
Baupin, who denies the allegations against him, has been forced to step down from his position; he’s currently under investigation.
In the days after the allegations against Baupin went public, another prominent politician — Finance Minister Michel Sapin — apologized for inappropriately touching a female journalist during a economics summit last year.
The journalist had accused Sapin of snapping the elastic on her underwear. Sapin had previously denied the charge, but now admits to “inappropriately” touching her — while denying that he had any aggressive or sexist intent.
Against the backdrop of these allegations, the 17 former government ministers say there’s a systemic problem that needs to be addressed. Men can’t tell their female colleagues they need to wear shorter skirts, or ask if they’re wearing thong underwear, or put their hand on a woman’s thigh without her consent, the women say.
And, they write, it’s crucial for women not to be punished when they step forward to report harassment.
This isn’t the first time that a group of prominent French women have spoken out against sexual harassment. (And it’s hardly a problem unique to France, as this weekend’s open letter notes).
A year ago, 40 female political journalists in France wrote an open letter denouncing male politicians for pressuring them to go out, commenting on their breasts, asking if they’re “tanned all over” and making other lewd comments.
There’s another important piece of backstory. Five years ago on Saturday, IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was charged with assaulting a hotel maid in New York. The case was ultimately dismissed, but opened years of allegations against Strauss-Kahn that brought down his political career.
That case fundamentally shifted the conversation about sexism, assault and harassment in France, Eleanor says.
“You know, sexual harassment was something that wasn’t taken seriously in France — but now it is,” she told us in a conversation on Facebook Live.
“I covered the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair and you heard a lot of men saying, ‘Well, that couldn’t have happened, she wasn’t even beautiful’ – horrible things like that.
“This time around I haven’t really heard anything like that. … Men, everyone, is saying, ‘Good for these women for coming forward — this is good for our democracy,’ ” Eleanor says.