Women in France are speaking up about sexual abuses

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Laura Poiret

Laura Poiret

An incredible phenomenon of liberation of speech had started to emerge in France at the end of 2019, before increasing in power and reaching its peak during the ceremony of the Cesars, France’s Oscars, on the 28th of February 2020. It was incredible, everyone was talking about it – for once, women and victims of sexual abuses were centre stage, and not for their bodies, their nice voice or their pretty smile. They had the floor. Who knows what could have happened if this French #MeToo, this liberating movement, which shook up the unsaid and broke taboos, hadn’t suddenly been stifled by a pandemic?

Adèle Haenel and Sarah Abitbol

Everything started in November 2019, when the French actress Adèle Haenel raised her voice and revealed that she had been a victim of sexual “touching” and “harassment” when she was a young teenager. She accused the French movie director Christophe Ruggia, for whom she played her first movies, when she was between twelve and fifteen years old. Her testimony was reinforced by an investigation made by the French independent journal Mediapart, which highlighted also a “systemic” characteristic of the sexual abuses in the French cinema’s industry – which would thus not escape to its own tribunal, its own #MeToo. A strong movement of support to the actress was shown at that moment, and the Society of movie directors even began a procedure of removal against Christophe Ruggia. The latter only denied those accusations, even though he admitted having “idolized” the young actress and apologized if that had been “difficult” for her. He also explained in the magazine Marianne that Adèle Haenel was “hostile” to him because he would have refused her a part in one of his movies, thus playing the usual card of the hysterical and revengeful accuser.

This bomb launched by Adèle Haenel had deeply disrupt the French cinema industry, but it also seems to have whistled the start of an emancipating race for the liberation of speech. After the cinema, it was the turn of the elitist society of French literature to explode. On December 26th, Vanessa Springora announced the publication of her book, Consent[1], in which she tells about her toxic relationship with the French writer Gabriel Matzneff, when she was only thirteen – and him, forty-nine. She describes the writer as a “predator” and a “pedophile” who had on her, the “vulnerable pray”, a very strong hold. Besides, the sexual appetite of this man of letters for young teenagers was not even a secret. But in the 70’s and 80’s, it was tolerated and above all protected by his social status and the society of “intellectuals” which surrounded him. Gabriel Matzneff persisted in denouncing “unfair attacks” and found shelter in an Italian hostel.

Weinstein, Matzneff, Ruggia, Polanski

The marathon was not over, and in January (right after the beginning of the trial in New-York City of the monster of the #MeToo scandal, Harvey Weinstein) it was the turn of the sport’s sphere to be shaken up. Simultaneously, on the 29th, the sports newspaper L’Equipe published an important investigation on sexual abuses in the world of sports, and the former professional ice skater Sarah Abitbol was interviewed in L’Obs for which she introduced her book, Such a Long Silence[2], in which she reveals that she had been a victim of several rapes committed by her ex-coach when she was only fifteen. The scandal was born and revealed that her case was not an exception. The French minister of Sports, Roxana Maracineanu, asked the President of the French Federation of Ice Sports, Didier Gailhaguet, to resign. She accused him of knowing those kind of crimes were happening and of doing nothing about it. The ‘omerta’ was revealed. After a long power struggle between Didier Gailhaguet, the minister and the media, he eventually resigned.

One could have believed that those events would have given birth to a real collective acknowledgement and that it was on the right path to finally recognise the victims. Apparently, this was hoping too much, and the fall was even more painful. On February, the 28th, during the controversial ceremony of the Césars, the Cesar of the best movie director was given to Roman Polanski. He is accused of sexual abuse and rape on a minor in the USA, from which he fled the justice in the 70’s to find shelter in France (a country which do not extradite its citizens). It was the last straw. This didn’t mean rewarding a movie, its picture nor the good acting, but it meant rewarding the movie director, the man himself – and by extension, the rapist. At that moment, Adèle Haenel left the room, screaming “Shame!” and applauding the “pedophilia” that the prestigious academy apparently wanted to reward. The next day, the feminist writer Virginie Despentes payed tribute to the actress’ actions and published in Libération a biting platform entitled “we get up and we take off!”. The actress who opened up first became a symbol for all the victim who had been reduced to silence for years. A picture of her leaving the ceremony became viral and was shared on social networks and during demonstration on the 8th of March, the International day for Women’s rights. Adèle Haenel had become a new feminist emblem.

And then, on the 17th of March, France was confined due to the pandemic of Covid-19. The sky was about to fall over us, and the concerned changed. Women’s wrath is smothered and shut, by necessity. But the pandemic is only a pause for the fights – all of them. When this will be over, they will start again. Surely, the world which implicitly let all that violence happen and which, above all, let them unpunished, will not change from one day to the other. But we can use wisely that time of pause to think about it. To extend our thinking, to ask ourselves why there is still such a taboo concerning the gender-based violence. Why women are never fully being listened to. Why they are always forced to swallow their pride and to fall into a painful silence. The title of Sarah Abitbol’s book, Such a Long Silence, is revealing of that silent pain into which women are forced to stay. It also reveals how lonely this is for the victims, because they are not listened to, or not believed – and if they are, it is only at the price of a public humiliation (“how did she find herself into that man’s bed? What kind of clothes was she wearing that day? But wasn’t she trying to obtain something from him? Etc…). And yet, they are not alone, on the contrary. As women open up, their army grows, thanks to those women who used their fame and their visibility to loosen their tongues and reveal to all the other victims  that they were not alone, and above all that they had the right to talk – if they want to. Adèle Haenel actually spoke to them in her interview for Mediapart : “I want to tell them that they are right to feel bad, and to think that it is abnormal to endure that; but that they are not alone, and that we can survive. We are not sentenced to a double punishment of victim.”[3]

Name and phone number, I also have some pics of her naked, it’s my ex. I exchange them (with others)

The struggles must pause for a while, but violence keeps going. Coincidence of fate, while I am writing this article, I receive a notification from the media France Inter which reminds me of it: “Reports of violence against women are shooting up everywhere in the world”[4]. Meanwhile, in Italy, a huge network of “revenge porn” has been disclosed those past few days. Pictures published without the consent of the women involved, child pornography… We do not learn. Not yet. But thanks to the movement of liberation of speech, we may be moving toward a society which would recognise those abuses and thus their victims; towards a society that would not tolerate them anymore. We can only hope that, slowly, justice will react and will listen to the victims, whether they accuse a famous and wealthy actor or the local craftsman. In fact, whereas the French cinema industry was rewarding Roman Polanski, Paris’ public prosecutor’s department launched an investigation about rape on minors of less than fifteen years old against Gabriel Matzneff, another about rape and assault on minors against Gilles Beyer (Sarah Abitbol’s former coach) ; and Christophe Ruggia was remanded in custody and placed under formal investigation about sexual abuses on minor of less than fifteen years old. Some of those stories are unfortunately over prescription according to French justice, but the aim of those investigations is to identify all the other possible victims of those men, in order to give them the floor, the credibility and and the dignity they deserve. Those small positive actions may be the first step towards a more advanced society. We may learn lessons from this movement – lessons we should have learned a long time ago – and finally grow up, as a society. It may be the proof that talking is important, liberating, if not purifying. In her essay entitled Witches[5], Mona Chollet begin her conclusion with those words: “What the appointed expression ‘liberation of speech’ pointed out almost had the effect of a spell, of magic words raging thunderstorms, sounding the death knell in our familiar universe […] I lived this collapsing as a liberation, a decisive breakthrough, like a transfiguration of our social world. We had the feeling that a new image of the world was struggling to come out.”[6] The victims opened up, and it turns out that words have a real impact on reality, that they can engender action. Little by little, the omerta and the taboos may finally disappear, for good.

written by Laura Poiret

Sources and articles to be read:


[1] Le Consentement, personal translation.

[2] Un Si Long Silence, personal translation.

[3] « Je veux leur dire qu’elles ont raison de se sentir mal, de penser que ce n’est pas normal de subir cela, mais qu’elles ne sont pas toutes seules, et qu’on peut survivre. On n’est pas condamné à une double peine de victime. »., personal translation.

[4] « Les signalements liés aux violences contre les femmes explosent un peu partout dans le monde », personal translation.

[5] Sorcières. La puissance invaincue des femmes, Mona Chollet, Zones, 2018. Personal translation.

[6] Ibid. « Ce que l’on désignait par la formule convenue de ‘libération de la parole’ avait presque l’effet d’un sort, d’une formule magique déchaînant orages et tempêtes, sonnant le chaos dans notre univers familier […] je vivais cet effondrement comme une libération, une percée décisive, comme une transfiguration de l’univers social. On avait le sentiment qu’une nouvelle image du monde luttait pour advenir. » Personal translation.

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