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New book accuses acclaimed French author of childhood sexual abuse

Vanessa Springora, author of the book 'Consent'
Vanessa Springora, author of the book 'Consent' Jean-François Paga, Grasset

In her new book Consent (Le consentement), French writer and publisher Vanessa Springora says that she became the sexual “prey” of author Gabriel Matzneff at age 14. The book has reignited a sharp public debate about paedophilia, around an author who has long defended his sexual relations with children.

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Springora’s book, which will be published on January 2, narrates her relationship with the author she describes as a well-known “predator”, which began in the mid-1980s when she was just 13. The book has already provoked a fierce reaction, both from feminists and children’s rights activists denouncing Matzneff as a child molester, and from his defenders, including prominent French literary figures. 

“The literary aura does not guarantee immunity,” wrote Minister of Culture Franck Riester on Twitter Saturday. “I lend my full support to all victims who have had the courage to break the silence. I invite them, as well as all witnesses of violence against children, to contact [France’s child abuse hotline].”

Matzneff, now 83, has never hidden his attraction to children. On the contrary, he has in large part staked his literary reputation on it. As early as 1974, he published a book defending his sexual relationships with girls and boys “under the age of 16” (les moins de seize ans), who he openly described as “children”.

A decade later, Vanessa Springora was one of them. In Consent, she explores the ambiguities of an era when many in France still associated paedophilia – or “pederasty”, as apologists like Matzneff labelled it – with post-1968 sexual liberation. She recounts her fascination, at age 14, with the then 50-year-old author, who she dubs simply “G.”, and how their encounter has weighed on her since.

Their relationship did not end with their initial sexual encounter, but continued in what Springora describes as a lasting pattern of harassment. She highlights that Matzneff continued to publish books based on his sexual exploits with children, including young boys in Asia.

“As if his passing through my life hadn’t been devastating enough, he had to continue documenting, falsifying, recording and forever engraving his misdeeds,” writes Springora.

In the context of renewed international attention to sexual violence, catalysed by the #MeToo movement, her book shines a spotlight on the evolving notion of consent. It also revives a longstanding debate between advocates against sexual abuse and Matzneff’s defenders, who accuse his critics of judging him by the standards of a new era.

A complicit literary establishment

Far from being ostracised, Matzneff has benefited for decades from a platform in some of France’s top literary venues. First in 1975 and again in 1990, he was interviewed on public television by Bernard Pivot, who for three decades hosted France’s most-watched literary talk shows. Pivot also served from 2014 until earlier this month as director of the prestigious Académie Goncourt.

In the 1990 interview, Pivot took a playful tone, calling Matzneff a “true professor of sexual education” and asking him about his taste for high schoolers and “kittens”.

Matzneff did however face criticism from another guest on the television segment, Canadian novelist Denise Bombardier, who compared the author to “old men” who entice children with candy. In the clip, which has accrued more than 900,000 views in less than a week, Bombardier said Matzneff would be “held to account by the justice system” if it weren’t for his “literary aura”.

“Literature cannot serve as an alibi,” she said.

Speaking to Canadian media last week, Bombardier said she received an email from Springora thanking her for being the only one to speak out in public against Matzneff’s predatory behaviour.

“Vanessa says that [my intervention] gave her the strength, after thirty years, to write and to make up her mind to speak,” she said. “I did what I had to do,” she adds, recalling the hostility she experienced in Paris literary circles following the exchange.

Pivot, for his part, has responded to accusations of complicity by invoking a different “era”.

“In the 1970s and ‘80s, literature came before morality; today, morality comes before literature,” he wrote on Twitter, where he has more than a million followers. “Morally, it’s progress. We are more or less the intellectual and moral products of a country and, above all, of an era.”  

The comments have not been well received by Matzneff’s critics.

“You have been complacent toward a child molester,” said the feminist collective Nous Toutes in a statement. “You have expressed no disgust, no indignation, no empathy for the victims. You have used the term ‘kittens’ to describe them, to denigrate, ridicule, and disqualify them.”

Online column and public subsidies

Matzneff has never been convicted of abuse. Still today, he is an online columnist for the weekly magazine Le Point, a platform he has repeatedly used to decry media “lynchings” of himself and other personalities.

“Like everyone else, we are horrified by paedophilia – there is no debate on that,” Etienne Gernelle, director of Le Point, told AFP. “But is there a reason not to publish an article by someone because their behaviour is deemed immoral?”

“I do not protect anyone but nor do I take part in manhunts,” added Gernelle, noting that none of Matzneff’s columns in the magazine had defended paedophilia. “Otherwise, it wouldn’t have made it through.”

Writing in Le Point in 2013, after he was awarded one of France’s top literary prizes for an anthology of his essays, Matzneff called his accusers a “lamentable race of sycophants”.

According to Culture Minister Riester, Matzneff still benefits from subsidies provided by the Centre National du Livre (a division of the culture ministry that supports books and publishing) to authors facing financial difficulties due to old age or illness. 

The subsidies, reserved for “authors whose work has unquestionably contributed to the reach of French-language literature” around the world, can range from €3,000 to €24,000 per year, according to an official document. Riester did not specify how much Matzneff receives.

An ‘edifice being built’ around the issue of consent

A law against sexual violence passed by the French parliament in 2018 classifies relations between an adult and a child under age 15 as rape, but only if a judge determines that the victim lacked the ability to consent. It does not, in other words, establish an automatic age of consent – a major disappointment to advocates against child abuse.

This came after two separate cases where judges initially declined to try men for rape after they were charged with engaging in sexual acts with 11-year-olds. The men were initially both convicted of “sexual abuse”, which carries a less severe penalty, on the grounds that the girls consented to the acts. One of the men was later convicted of rape on appeal.

“I hope to make a small contribution to the edifice that is being built around the issues of domination and consent,” Springora told L’Obs magazine. She noted that she started writing the book “long before the Harvey Weinstein affair” which began in late 2017.

Springora now directs the Julliard publishing house, which first published Matzneff’s book on “under-16s”.

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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