French MP candidates forced to stand down following assault allegations

·4 min read

The #MeToo anti-sexual harassment movement is reshaping France's sexist political culture, with several politicians running for parliament in upcoming elections forced to stand down over alleged violence against women.

Several French feminist politicians and journalists launched the "MeToo Politique" movement last November to decry sexism in politics and to demand that men accused of sexual violence be systematically thrown out of office.

Six months later, their bid to shake up politics appears to have taken root, with several prominent candidates for the June legislative elections accused of violence against women throwing in the towel under pressure.

Jerome Peyrat, a candidate for President Emmanuel Macron's LREM party who was found guilty of violence against his former partner, will no longer stand, party chief Stanislas Guerini said on Wednesday.

Guerini had prompted an outcry earlier in the day by appearing to downplay the issue.

"[Peyrat] is an honest man. I don't think he is capable of violence against women," he told FranceInfo radio.

Peyrat, who was an advisor to former presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy as well as to Macron, was handed a suspended fine of 3,000 euros in September 2020.

Medical examinations seen by the Mediapart news site noted bruises on the face, neck, arm, shoulder and wrist of Peyrat's ex-partner, as well as jaw pain and a post-traumatic stress disorder. She was signed off work for two weeks.

"Nominating someone to stand as an MP means giving them weight and a platform," said local Paris politician Alice Coffin. She is a founding member of the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, created in November when "MeToo Politique" was launched.

"We cannot celebrate abusers," she told AFP.

Taha Bouhafs, who was running for MP on a hard-left ticket with the France Unbowed movement (LFI), also stepped down last week after several women came forward to LFI and accused him of sexual assault.

Candidates dropping out is a sign things are changing, said Fiona Texeire, a staffer at the Paris City Hall and founding member of the Observatory.

"[But] the true victory will be when parties do the work internally and don't nominate people accused of sexist or sexual violence," she added.

- Boys' club -

French politics has long been perceived as a boys' club.

French women did not win the right to vote until 1944, several decades after their British, Dutch and American counterparts.

The country has never had a female president and it was not until this week that Macron named the second-ever female prime minister, Elisabeth Borne.

But a series of high-profile sexual violence cases involving prominent politicians have shaken the political sphere.

In 2011, when powerful Socialist politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York on charges of trying to rape a hotel maid, the French political class closed ranks behind him.

Such a stance is much more unlikely in the aftermath of #MeToo, experts say.

In recent years, prominent political figures such as Green politician Denis Baupin and former environment minister Nicolas Hulot have been forced to retire from public life following accusations of sexual harassment or abuse.

Hulot withdrew from public life in November last year after a documentary aired on prime-time television featuring several women claiming he sexually abused them, including a woman who says he raped her when she was a minor.

Macron's decision in 2020 to appoint Gerald Darmanin as interior minister – even though he was accused of rape, sexual harassment and abuse of power – also drew heavy criticism, even sparking demonstrations.

However Darmanin has denied any wrongdoing and prosecutors in January asked for the case to be dropped.

- 'By nature sexist' -

"The mediatisation of sexist and sexual violences has definitely evolved in favour of women these past years," said Merabha Benchikh, a sociologist from Strasbourg University in eastern France.

But #MeToo has had less effect in France than in Britain and the United States, Benchikh added. She put this down to a culture of seduction in France she says often amounts to harassment.

Shortly after the #MeToo movement began, around 100 French women writers, performers and academics including screen icon Catherine Deneuve wrote an open letter defending the "right to bother" women.

"We were the only country to have an opinion column signed by women against #MeToo," said Coffin.

Three candidates for the presidential election in April – Eric Zemmour, Jean Lassalle and Francois Asselineau – had been accused of sexual abuse or harassment.

Asselineau denied the accusations. Zemmour refused to speak about the incidents, which he says are part of his private life, while Lassalle apologised if he "caused offence".

"The French political field – by nature androcentric and sexist – has long excluded women, including in their attempts to speak out," said Benchikh.

"Women's voices are only beginning to free themselves from these relationships of domination," she added.

(AFP)

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