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Women Are Speaking Up About the Sexual Harassment They've Experienced in French Politics

Capture d'écran de la vidéo de sensibilisation à l'harcèlement par l'association égalité en droit

Screenshot from a sexual harassment video by the Equality in Law Association

It seems strolling through the halls of government can be just as upsetting as walking down the street for women in France because of the sexual harassment, workplace discrimination and gender-based violence they experience there. And until recently, silence was preferred over the stigmatization that often went with going public.

That appears to be changing. Seventeen French female ministers of government from all political sides have decided that they aren't going to keep quiet any longer. Under the slogan of “We will not be silenced”, they have condemned sexism in French politics in an open letter.

One of the reasons that propelled the women to speak out were revelations made about the behavior of Denis Baupin, an elected minister from the Europe-Ecology – The Greens party, before his resignation in mid-April. A total of eight women from that party told news outlets France Inter and Mediapart that Baupin had subjected them to sexual harassment.

Baupin denies the allegations, but nonetheless submitted his resignation as deputy speaker of the National Assembly.

Elen Debost, assistant to the mayor of the city of Le Mans and member of Political Party Europe-Ecology – Les Verts (The Green Party in France), reported that she had received nearly one hundred harassing text messages from Baupin, while Europe-Ecology – Les Verts minister Isabelle Attard said she also received dozens of messages from Baupin before leaving the party.

In a message published May 9, 2016 on digital documents hosting site YouScribe, Debost explained the reasons which pushed her firstly to keep silent and then to publicly condemn the humiliation she was subjected to. Her post has received more than 35,000 reads and has been re-posted and commented on by a number of other sites..

She said Baupin's elected position offered certain powers which enhanced his ability to do harm:

Le 11 mars dernier je découvrais une photo où 8 députés masculins, paradaient, barbouillés de rouge à lèvre en soit disant soutien, à la journée internationale des droits des femmes. Parmi ces 8 hommes, figurait le député Denis Baupin, prise de nausée j'ai vomi.
Pourquoi cette nausée?
Automne 2011, un peu en amont des désignations internes des candidat-es aux législatives sur les circonscriptions “réservées”, Monsieur Baupin m'appelle pour me demander de le soutenir lors du vote interne de notre motion pour la désignation des candidat-es. J'accepte, flattée… S'en ai suivi plusieurs mois de harcèlement sexuel, par SMS. Des messages à caractères sexuels, des avances, des propos obscènes.

L'image de cet homme barbouillé de rouge à lèvre est comme un crachat, une provocation à toutes ses victimes, un “regardez bien comme je vous emmerde”. Cette image provoque la nausée, elle démontre le sentiment d'impunité et de toute puissance qui est le sien.

On March 11, I discovered a photo in which eight male ministers were parading around, smeared in lipstick, supposedly in support of International Women's Rights Day.  Among these eight men was Minister Denis Baupin; suddenly nauseous, I vomited.

Why it makes me feel so nauseous?

In autumn of 2011, somewhat snowed under from internal appointments of candidates to parliament in “special” districts, Mr. Baupin called to ask me for help during the internal vote for our motion for the nomination of candidates. I accepted, flattered…soon to be followed by several months of sexual harassment by text message. Messages of a sexual nature, propositions, all obscene. The image of this man smeared in lipstick was a spit in the face, a middle finger to all his victims. “Take a good look as I'm pissing you off.” This image provoked the nausea, because it demonstrated the feeling of impunity and all the power he holds.

In no political party are women safe from such harassment. Not long after, Roselyne Bachelot, former minister in the right-wing government during the Jacques Chirac's administration from 1995 to 2007, revealed in an interview in the weekly journal l’ Événement du Jeudi, that “sexism is without a doubt the most shared trait between political parties.”

This is not something Aurore Bergé is going to deny, either. Indeed, this elected official from Yvelines, a member the Républicains party, published a message on Facebook, just hours after the revelations about Baupin went public, revealing an experience she had at a meeting. Her post was titled “A scene from everyday political life“:

Je suis accueillie par un “quand je te vois, j'ai envie de te faire une Baupin.” J'ai passé la journée à lire les témoignages de celles qui ont osé parler. A les relayer. Et à espérer que cela participe à changer les comportements.

Et je me trouve navrante dans mon incapacité à réagir.

Un autre élu enchaîne avec un “quand on voit Aurore, on a le bâton de Berger”. C'est gras, c'est vulgaire, c'est grossier. C'est pathétique. Il a l'âge d'être mon père (ils en ont un peu tous l'âge)…

Mais quand ça t'arrive, tu ne sais pas comment réagir. Tu es sidérée. Bloquée. Tu lui fous une claque ? Tout le monde te regarderait. Tu ne ris pas ? Tu n'es décidément pas faite pour la politique. Et puis, c'est drôle, non ? C'est un bon mot après tout. Tu te regardes.

I was welcomed by one colleague with a, “When I see you, I want to pull a Baupin on you”. I spent the day reading testimonies of those who had dared to speak. To pass on their stories. In the hope that it will help change behaviors.

I thought myself pathetic in my failure to react.

Another elected official followed with, “When we see Aurore, she gives us a “baton de berger” [baton de berger being a brand of sausage, rhyming with Aurore Bergé's surname]”. It's slimy, it's vulgar, it's crude. It's pathetic. He's my father's age (they're all about his age)…

But when it happens, you don't know how to react. You're stunned. Frozen. Do you give him a slap? Everyone is looking at you. Why are you not laughing? Then you must not be cut out for politics. I mean, it's funny, isn't it? It's a good joke after all. You end up questioning yourself.

‘Sexual harassment and bullying has no gender’

On French news site Rue89's Facebook page, the accusations against Baupin and the revelations of other women political figures fueled conversation on sexism in French politics and ordinary life in France.

Some were quick to complain that men also experience workplace harassment, like Gregory Gege, who wrote:

Je suis un homme et on me prends aussi pour un coincé de service …. Par les femmes de la boîte. Je ne supporte pas qu'on traite un gars “d'avion de chasse ” ou qu'on vienne me dire que ce serait cool qu'on arrive tous en kilt …. Sans culotte bien entendu ….Résultat : je ne parle plus aux femmes mis à part au niveau professionnel…

I am a man and also taken for the token prude …. By women in the office. I can't stand being treated like a “stud” or when they tell me it'd be cool if we all wore kilts…without underpants of course… The result: I no longer speak to women in the office apart from professional topics.

This provoked the following reaction from Stéphanie Bodo, who seemed puzzled:

Gregory Gégé, auriez vous un probleme avec les femmes?… entre passer pour le “coincé de service” et se faire peloter par un vieux libidineux dans un metro ou dans un ascenceur, il y a un monde, non?

Gregory Gégé, maybe you have a problem with women in general?… Between being taken for the “token prude” and being groped by a lecherous old man in a subway or elevator, there is a big difference, don't you think?

Another reader, Nathalie Schmitt, reminded that women are not the only victims of sexual harassment:

Effectivement je ne nie pas contrairement à pas mal de féministes que l'inverse existe aussi. J'ai assisté à des attitudes professionnelles dérangeantes de la part de certaines femmes. Je me souviens avoir eu une discussion avec un collègue masculin en lui disant de faire attention. Le harcèlement sexuel et moral n'a pas de sexe… De même qu'il ne faut pas nier qu'il existe bien des hommes battus et des femmes violeuses ou incestueuses. Merci Gregory Gégé pour votre commentaire.

Indeed, I do not deny, unlike many feminists, that the reverse also exists. I have witnessed disturbing professional attitudes coming from women. I remember having a discussion with a male colleague telling him to be careful. Sexual harassment and bullying has no gender…Just as there is no denying that there are many battered men, raped women, and incest victims. Thank you, Gregory Gégé, for your comment.

‘I have just about had it with this behavior’

Emilie Jedrzejczak pointed the finger at the sense of impunity which might explain the reprehensible behavior of certain male politicians towards women:

Tant que les politiques se sentiront au dessus de tout le monde et des lois, à tous les niveaux, le pays n'avancera pas d'un millimètre… A quand des gens normaux pour nous gouverner ?! Qui ont de l'expérience, qui ont du transpirer pour gagner leur vie ! A part nous faire vomir ils servent à quoi ?

As long as politicians feel above the law and everyone else, at every level, the country will not advance one centimeter….when will we be governed by normal people?! One who has experience, who sweats for a living! Except for making us vomit, what purpose do they serve?

According to the French Journalists’ Syndicate, Baupin via his lawyer tried to stop the publication of the sexual harassment allegations against him twice:

Que s'est-il passé dans l'esprit d'un élu de la nation pour qu'il s'attaque directement à un principe démocratique fondateur de notre République : la liberté de la presse ?

What happened to the spirit of an elected official of the nation, that he directly attacks a founding principle of our republic's democracy: freedom of the press?

Some had harsh commentary for Emmanuelle Cosse, minister of housing and the partner of Baupin. Sylvain Chazot, a blogger on Europe 1-Le Lab Politique, reports that Cosse tried to hush the story at first:

Quand il y a eu des allusions à ça, assez récemment lors d'un conseil fédéral, à la surprise générale, la personne qui est montée à la tribune pour demander qu'on arrête de discuter de ça, c'est sa compagne, c'est Emma Cosse qui a dit : ‘stop, j'ai interdit qu'on poursuive ce débat. On réglera ça ailleurs et dans d'autres conditions

When allusions are made to it, recently enough at a federal council, to general surprise the person who approaches the podium to ask that we stop our discussion is his partner, Emma Cosse. She says: Stop, I've forbidden continuing this debate. We will settle this elsewhere and under different conditions.

Baupin certainly isn't the first male politician to be accused of harassment. French Finance Minister Michel Sapin recently admitted to “inappropriate behavior” with a journalist. She said the he had snapped the waistband of her underwear while on the job; he denied this, but said he did touch her lower back.

Lamourere Odile thought of the women who are not so lucky to be the attention of the world in their search for justice, but who suffer from harassment each day or other inappropriate behavior:

Ca commence à bien faire…..pensons aux femmes au smic qui n'ont pas le pouvoir de réagir… et pour qui dénoncer équivaut a être sur la paille.. Les femmes qui montent au créneau actuellement ont les moyens de se défendre…Signé: une féministe 1ère génération !

I have just about had it with this behavior …Let's think of the women on minimum wage who don't have the power to react…and for those who to accuse, is to go broke…Women on the front lines right now have at least the means to defend themselves. Signed, a first-generation feminist!

Not all female politicians applauded the women for speaking out. Elected official Christine Boutin was one of them, which got Twitter user  attention:

Christine Boutin's tweet: I am officially ashamed of these former ministers that suggest men are only obsessed with sex. Enough is enough.

Guillaume Blardone's tweet: Probably why sexism still has good days ahead of it.

It will take time to finally eliminate this inappropriate behavior by men in power, but at least by condemning these despicable acts, the victims can see their abusers face the full measure of the law.  In the case of Baupin, prosecutors have opened an investigation.

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