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Politicians, activists condemn ‘code of silence’ on French MP sex assault claims

Jacques Demarthon, AFP | Archival picture shows French MP Denis Baupin at the National Assembly on July 2, 2013

More than 500 politicians and women’s rights activists have signed an appeal praising women who have come forward to speak out amid an investigation into allegations a French MP sexually harassed women in his entourage for years.

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Senior lawmaker Denis Baupin resigned as deputy assembly speaker on Monday over the accusations.

A group calling itself "Break the Silence" penned the declaration against what it decried as an entrenched “code of silence” surrounding sexual harassment that France has long failed to address.

The signatories, which included Green Party MP Cécile Duflot, centrist Senator Chantal Jouanno and other leading politicians, called for an “end of the impunity” for aggressors.

Paris prosecutors on Tuesday said they were opening a formal investigation into allegations that Baupin, a former Green Party chief, sexually harassed and assaulted eight current and former colleagues.

The allegations surfaced in the French media on Monday. They ranged from explicit SMS text messages sent to a fellow MP during parliamentary sessions, to breast groping and an attempt to kiss another colleague after a party meeting.

The petition published Tuesday in the left-leaning daily Libération said women in general faced pressure from society to keep quiet over incidents of sexual harassment, but that the problem was especially acute in the world of politics.

Fear of exclusion

“More than in other settings, [women] must never appear weak or as victims. Behind this silence lies the fear of being that woman who started trouble, of being judged, excluded, and finally politically discredited,” the appeal said of sexual violence in France's halls of power.

“So that men change their behaviour, instead of women adapting to it, so that things finally change and that the impunity ends, so that the guilt switches sides, we must speak up,” it insisted.

Tuesday’s appeal in Libération quoted an Op-Ed column published by female political correspondents one year ago, which said they had experienced widespread sexual harassment from French politicians during interviews and other reporting assignments.

Little or nothing had changed as a result of that column, the petition said. It also lamented that the allegations of gross sexual misconduct by former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn had done nothing to stir France from its complicit silence in the past five years.

‘Confidence’

Baupin, 53, has denied any wrongdoing. He stepped down as deputy speaker of France’s National Assembly to "best prepare my defence", according to an email sent to the chamber’s president. He nevertheless did not forfeit his parliamentary seat.

His lawyer said he was suing France Inter radio and investigative news website Mediapart – the two outlets that published the testimonies of Baupin’s alleged victims – for defamation.

Baupin is married to French Housing Minister Emmanuelle Cosse, who on Tuesday said she had been unaware of accusations of sexual harassment against her husband in past. She declared she still had “confidence” in Baupin, even if she had been “deeply affected” by the allegations.

“We are talking about extremely serious accusations. If they prove to be true, it will be up to courts to resolve. And if they are untrue, it will also be up to the courts to resolve. There are no other questions, there are no other options,” Cosse told France Info radio on Tuesday morning in her first interview since the scandal broke.

“I will say things simply. I have been deeply affected as a woman, a wife, a mother and also as a minister,” she added, saying she has long been committed for defending women who are the victims of violence.

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