'Omerta' broken, French MP faces sexual harassment probe

10th May 2016, Comments 0 comments

French judges opened an investigation on Tuesday into multiple claims of sexual harassment against former deputy parliamentary speaker Denis Baupin, as experts welcomed an end to the "omerta" around such alleged abuse by politicians.

Baupin's wife, Housing Minister Emmanuelle Cosse, told French radio earlier in the day that she was shocked by the allegations made Monday by eight women, including four members of their ecologist EELV party.

"We are talking about acts of extreme seriousness and if they are proven, it must be dealt with by the courts," she told France Info.

She said she still had faith in her husband and had heard nothing of the accusations until they appeared in the media on Monday.

"I was very affected as a woman, as a wife, as a mother and also as a minister," she said.

Baupin, 53, resigned his post as one of parliament's six deputy speakers on Monday, saying he wanted to focus on fighting the allegations, which his lawyer described as "mendacious, defamatory and baseless".

Baupin has launched defamation proceedings against the media outlets that published the women's allegations.

Paris prosecutors said their investigation would focus on gathering statements from the alleged victims and that no criminal complaint had been lodged against Baupin.

The statute of limitations for harassment in France is three years, which would exclude most of the alleged incidents, some of which date back 15 years.

Several feminist organisations are to stage a rally in front of France's National Assembly later on Wednesday to demand Baupin's resignation.

One group, The Women's Foundation, said it would launch a legal support hotline for women who had suffered sexual harassment at the hands of politicians.

Regardless of the outcome of the preliminary inquiry into Baupin, experts welcomed the greater freedom to discuss harassment.

"I think it's the end of the 'omerta'," said Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, a professor of political science at Reims university, using the Italian mafia's term for 'code of silence'.

"Several male politicians must be a bit worried today because this type of behaviour is frequent," she claimed.

She interviewed around 60 female politicians about harassment in 2012, and said the situation began to change with the allegations against Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Strauss-Kahn, a former head of the International Monetary Fund who was touted as a possible future French president, faced accusations that he sexually assaulted a hotel maid in New York in 2011. The charges were eventually dropped.

"The spate of scandals around (Strauss-Kahn) became a sort of monstrous incarnation of how women are not respected... on a daily basis by men in politics," Froidevaux-Metterie said.

Catherine Achin, a political expert at Paris-Dauphine University said attitudes were finally changing as more women enter politics.

- 'Tip of the iceberg' -

One of Baupin's accusers, EELV spokeswoman Sandrine Rousseau, told the Mediapart website and France Inter radio on Monday that the lawmaker made an aggressive pass at her in October 2011 outside a party meeting.

"Denis Baupin appeared in the corridor outside... He pinned me against the wall with his chest and tried to kiss me. I pushed him away vigorously," she alleged.

Elen Debost, deputy mayor of the central city of Le Mans, claimed she received sexually explicit text messages from Baupin for several months in 2011.

She said she did not realise the scale of the problem until approached by the media, and that "a lot of people kept quiet so as not to harm his campaign".

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© 2016 AFP

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