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Former French minister Georges Tron goes on trial for rape

Charles Platiau, REUTERS | Georges Tron, 61, was forced to quit his job as junior minister in Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government over the allegations.

The conservative mayor and former French minister Georges Tron has gone on trial on charges of raping and sexually assaulting two female workers at the town hall of Draveil, south of Paris.

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The two women claim Tron, 61, pressured them into foot massage sessions that evolved into coercive sexual encounters between 2007 and 2010, aided by former councillor Brigitte Gruel, who is also on trial. Tron and Gruel, who both face up to 20 years in jail for group rape, have denied any wrongdoing.

A junior minister for civil service in the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, Tron was forced to quit his position after the allegations first surfaced in 2011. His resignation came amid a wave of soul-searching over sexual misdemeanors and secrecy in French public life. It followed the dramatic arrest in New York on sex crime charges of IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then seen as a frontrunner for the French presidency.

The accusers, now aged 41 and 44, say Tron – dubbed the “Chinese masseur” by his colleagues – told them he was an expert in reflexology and coerced them into taking part in foot massage sessions. They allege the sessions, some of them attended by Gruel, would lead to sexual games and molestation, and were followed by threats to force them into silence. The purported sexual encounters would take place in Tron’s office, in a nearby chateau made available by the town hall, or under restaurant tables.

A dozen other women, including parliamentary workers, have since spoken to investigators about the former minister’s “inappropriate behaviour”. Draveil town hall employees have told the French press that Tron had a habit of hiring attractive women who faced financial difficulties or were in otherwise vulnerable situations. One of the two accusers suffered from depression and attempted to commit suicide months before the scandal broke out. The other was fired in 2009 on accusations of theft.

A troubled trial

Tron, who was reelected for a fourth term as mayor of Draveil in 2014 despite the allegations, has described the case as an attempt by political opponents to smear him as a “foot fetishist” and gain leverage from the Strauss-Kahn scandal.

In 2013, judges investigating the case decided to drop charges against Tron and Gruel, citing inconsistencies in the plaintiffs’ accounts. But they were overruled by a Paris court, which welcomed an appeal by the two accusers and the AVFT, a European watchdog that monitors violence against women in the workplace.

A first attempt at holding the trial late last year was derailed amid complaints that a TV documentary on the case, aired as the trial opened, would influence proceedings. In a bizarre twist, the presiding judge confessed to lawyers that, as a man, he felt uncomfortable conducting the hearings in the context of rape allegations levelled at Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and the emergence of the #MeToo movement.

The new trial has been moved to a court in the northeastern Paris suburb of Bobigny, away from Tron’s political bastion in the wealthier southern suburbs, where he also served as a lawmaker for almost two decades. The proceedings are expected to last four weeks, with some 50 witnesses summoned to court.

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