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#MeToo: Disgraced former French lawmaker takes his accusers to court for defamation

Bertrand Guay, AFP | Disgraced former French lawmaker Denis Baupin, of the Green Party, on April 4, 2015.

Former French MP Denis Baupin’s defamation lawsuit against six women who accused him of sexual misconduct opened in Paris on Monday, in a case some view as a test of the limits of the #MeToo movement.

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Baupin, a prominent Green Party member, resigned in disgrace as vice president of the lower house of parliament in May 2016, after French investigative website Médiapart and France Inter radio published accounts from eight women who accused him of making unwanted physical advances and sending hundreds of lewd text messages.

The scandal later deepened when six more women came forward with similar claims of sexual misconduct dating from 1998 to 2014.

Baupin stringently denied the allegations, claiming they were politically motivated. A month after resigning from office, he filed a defamation lawsuit against Médiapart and France Inter for their coverage of the story, as well as six women who allowed reporters to use their names.

“His reputation, his family, his life were broken,” Emmanuel Pierrat, a lawyer for Baupin, told the Associated Press ahead of Monday’s trial.

The majority of Baupin’s accusers were fellow-members of the Green Party. Four of the women filed criminal complaints against the former MP for sexual harassment. But a nine-month judicial investigation ended without charges after prosecutors were forced to drop the case because it exceeded the statute of limitations.

“At the end of the investigation, it would appear that offences reported, according to the witnesses’ measured, consistent and corroborated statements, can be classified as criminal. However, the statute of limitations has expired,” then Paris prosecutor François Molins said in a press release.

Baupin now hopes to “fully clear his name” by demonstrating his accusers, Médiapart and France Inter treated him unfairly. Under French defamation law, the defendant must show they acted in good faith or prove they told the truth.

Media reports are also evaluated by additional criteria: the legitimacy of journalists' goals in producing a story, whether they demonstrate an absence of personal animosity, prudence and balance, and the quality of the investigation.

‘Will justice send the message women must remain silent?’

For some of the women targeted by Baupin’s defamation suit, the trial is a test of the #MeToo movement, which began in 2017 and has encouraged victims of sexual assault and misconduct to speak out about their experiences.

"The question is: Will justice send the message that women must remain silent?" Sandrine Rousseau, a former Green Party spokeswoman who accused Baupin of grabbing her breast at a 2011 meeting, told the Associated Press. "It's an important message, a message saying that women can speak out – or not."

Rousseau’s comments were echoed by her co-defendant and fellow-Green Party member Annie Lahmer, who said she felt it was her “duty” to testify.

Lahmer – who now serves on the Paris regional council – alleged that Baupin chased her around an office desk in 1999, when the two worked together. When she refused his advances, Lahmer claims Baupin told her she would never be able to have a career in the party.

"In court, I'm going to say it's inadmissible that some men who hold power consider that kind of behavior as normal. It's not," she told the Associated Press.

Isabelle Attard, also a former MP, accused Baupin of sending her dozens of inappropriate text messages in 2012 and 2013. Attard said it was difficult for her to come forward, but that she hopes growing awareness and support from the #MeToo movement gives other women "more courage to say no and speak out".

"I was just an activist who then became a lawmaker facing someone very prominent in the party," Attard told the Associated Press. "I didn't feel on an equal footing with him."

Since the allegations against Baupin and the inception of #MeToo, France has passed a number of measures to better protect victims of sexual violence and promote greater gender equality.

In August, the government approved a bill making it illegal to sexually harass someone in public and extending the statute of limitations for sex crimes. The new law led to the successful prosecution of a man in September, who was caught on video slapping a woman on the bottom, calling her a “whore” and commenting on her breast size while riding a bus in Paris. The man was fined €300 and sentenced to three months in jail for the assault.

Reports of sexual assault also surged by 20 percent in 2018, according to the interior ministry, which directly attributed the rise in complaints to the #MeToo movement.

Yet Marlène Schiappa, junior minister for women’s rights, acknowledged to the Associated Press that only “a very little bit of progress” has been made in France, where there’s been “an enormous backlash” against efforts to challenge "a sexism very deeply anchored in our society".

"What I deplore is generally whenever a woman talks about sexual or sexist assault, you start to dig into the woman's life and put this woman into a position of being accused," she said.

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