Another political sex scandal, another intelligent, competent, but bewildered wife thrust under the spotlight.
This time it’s Denis Baupin, a prominent French politician who resigned as one of France’s six deputy speakers Monday over sexual assault allegations.
Baupin was a former member of the Greens party, known by its French acronym EELV (Europe Écologie-Les Verts). His wife, Emmanuelle Cosse, is France’s housing minister.
The Greens are in a coalition with the ruling Socialist Party and Cosse, a former Greens party national secretary, is a fairly low-key politician who married Baupin last year. As housing minister, she rarely – if ever – made the headlines. Unlike her predecessor and fellow Green politician, Cécile Duflot, Cosse is not a media darling.
Duflot, for instance, was at the center of a sexism debate back in 2012, when the young lawmaker was greeted by whistles and hoots from her male colleagues as she took to the podium dressed in a floral dress to speak about an architecture project in parliament.
But Cosse, a 41-year-old former journalist, had managed to stay out of the limelight.
That was before Monday, when her husband resigned as deputy speaker amid a slew of sexual assault and harassment allegations revealed in a joint report by French radio station France Inter and investigative news website Mediapart.
By Tuesday, the hapless woman was all over the news – for the worst reasons.
“After the Baupin scandal, tongues wag,” read a headline in the left-leaning Libération above a December 2015 photograph of Cosse and her husband.
Cosse’s interview with France Info shortly after Baupin’s resignation makes for some uncomfortable viewing. “We are talking about extremely serious accusations. If they prove to be true, it will be up to the courts to resolve. And if they are untrue it will also be up to the courts to resolve,” said Cosse.
When asked if the allegations against her husband troubled her, a visibly exasperated Cosse -- who looked like she’d rather be anywhere else besides the studio -- replied, “No, no, I’m not troubled. If your question is, do I have confidence in my spouse? The answer is yes.”
That triggered a debate at the morning edit meeting, with some of my colleagues arguing it was the most unconvincing defense of a spouse – ever. Others insisted Cosse does not have much of a choice at this stage, and still others wondered why she chose to even defend her “perv” husband.
Sticking by Dominique Strauss-Kahn
The last time I was subjected to this sort of debate in Paris was shortly after Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in New York in 2011 over assault allegations. The disgraced IMF chief’s then wife, Anne Sinclair -- a respected journalist and heiress -- was sticking by her husband as well as paying his legal fees and the rent for a temporary Manhattan apartment.
A number of my French female friends simply couldn’t figure why a woman like Sinclair would stand by, what they called, “a beast” like Strauss-Kahn. I tried telling them it was too early, that nobody could or should judge what goes on in a relationship, that seemingly powerful women could also be deeply insecure, that intelligent women can make mistakes in their personal choices, but to no avail.
“But she doesn’t even need the money,” they exclaimed. “She is a professional journalist, she’s richer than him, why is she defending him?”
These are non-issues, I remonstrated. The real question, I argued, is why didn’t any French woman file charges against Strauss-Kahn when his sexually predatory behavior was well-known? Or would a French hotel maid of African origin have gone to the police if Strauss-Kahn attempted to rape her?
But they insisted Sinclair’s seemingly baffling behavior was also an issue.
In a desperate bid to stick to what I considered more pressing issues, I mentioned Hillary Clinton. Wrong. Obviously Hillary stuck by Bill through the Monica Lewinsky scandal because she’s a woman in love with power. They were absolutely certain about this.
That’s the thing when it comes to discussing the duped wives of perv politician husbands: suddenly everyone knows exactly what’s going on in these marriages. They know what motivates the women who have been plunged into a nightmare not of their own doing. And they have an opinion about it. And they will air it.
When New York Democrat Anthony Weiner got caught in his first “sexting” scandal back in 2011, a number of my US friends and family members worked themselves up into a tizzy over his wife’s situation. The fact that Huma Abedin, a longtime Hillary Clinton aide, was born to parents of Indian-Pakistani origins and was exactly the sort of immigrant success story my US circle admires, made the discussions even more fraught.
“Poor Huma,” “From a fellow South Asian American to Huma,” the emails and Facebook posts arrived fast and hard. “Sister, it pains us to watch you try to make this work,” wrote a guest columnist in The Feminist Wire.
Blogs were posted, hands wrung in despair over the latest anti-feminist sistah act…it would have been fine if it ended there.
But alas, five years later, we’re still at it.
Earlier this year, Weiner, a documentary on the New York power couple, premiered at the Sundance film festival. Film critics focused on Abedin, now a vice chair of the 2016 Clinton campaign. Vanity Fair said the film portrays Abedin as “a politically calculated scold”. The New York Times noted that, “Even in scenes in which Ms. Abedin is not shown, the focus is almost always on her: How was she able to forgive Mr. Weiner the first time, the film repeatedly asks, and would she ever be able to forgive a second transgression?”
Huma the wounded spouse
I say, who cares? Abedin is at the center of a number of controversies in her own right, as a Clinton aide. That’s what matters.
Republicans have raked her over the coals about the nearly $10,000 they claim she was overpaid while on maternity leave. They have questioned an arrangement that allowed Abedin to earn income as an independent consultant while working for Clinton at the State Department. And a few days ago, the FBI questioned the Michigan-born Clinton aide in the Benghazi email scandal.
You may believe -- or chose not to believe -- the Democrat line that this is all part of a Republican strategy to use Abedin as a pawn in their bid to politically damage Clinton. But at least that attention is targeted at an aide and vice chair of the Clinton campaign.
Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the end of the “Huma, the wounded spouse” story. The documentary Weiner is set to be released next month. This being an election year, the media bandwagon will surely jump on this one – again.
Times are changing
The fact is, apart from prurient interest or just plain curiosity, there’s little to be said about wounded wives of perv political husbands.
Every relationship has its context and time either heals old wounds or catches up after the media circus has moved on.
In the Strauss-Kahn case, Sinclair finally divorced the disgraced former IMF chief two years after she publicly stood by her man. She has since published a memoir about her grandfather, she is currently editorial director of the French Huffington Post, she’s moved on. My French feminist friends could have saved themselves a lot of angst.
As for Clinton, she may or may not be the next US president. It’s debatable whether sticking with Bubba has got her where she is today. I fail to see how it affected her trajectory from New York senator, to 2008 presidential candidate, to US secretary of state, to candidate Clinton again. May be her decision to stick with the marriage and forgive her husband provided her emotional security. May be she believes that behind every successful woman stands a successful man – who knows?
And what does it matter? I’m happy to note that in the latest Baupin case, the French media has stuck with covering the real issues – at least so far.
A day after Baupin’s resignation, around 500 politicians -- mostly women but many men too -- signed a petition condemning what they called “the Omerta,” or Mafia-like code of silence, surrounding sexual harassment in France.
That is slowly, oh-so slowly happening in France. On the FRANCE 24 debate Tuesday night, my fellow panelists agreed that the Strauss-Kahn case was a watershed moment for French female politicians and for female political journalists and party officials.
It enabled French journalist Tristan Banon to file a lawsuit against Strauss-Kahn over an alleged assault in 2002.
Last year, an open letter signed by around 40 female political correspondents exposed some of the most shocking examples of sexism they say they have faced while trying to carry out their jobs in the corridors of power.
Now the Baupin case has led to even more national soul searching. Has France turned the corner on sexism and sexual assault? Probably. After years of silence, Baupin's victims finally spoke up. He has denied the allegations, but quit his post as deputy speaker. Is this the end of the story? Certainly not. We may have come a long way baby, we still have a long road ahead.
As for his wife, let's just leave her out of it for now. Her marriage is her business, not ours.