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‘It’s gone too far’: 17 ranking female French politicians expose rampant sexual harassment

International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Christine Lagarde speaks during a press conference at the Treasury Office in central London on May 13, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / PETER NICHOLLSPETER NICHOLLS/AFP/Getty Images
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“What is she, apart from her magnificent breasts?”

“Her skirt is too long, it has to be cut.”

“Are you wearing a thong?”

These are some of the comments directed at female French ministers and their peers in the workplace, according to a column signed by 17 former and current ministers. Published Sunday in the newspaper Journal de Dimanche, the piece widely denounces sexual harassment following months of allegations against prominent public figures.

The acts with which male French politicians have been associated recently, according to the Associated Press, include “grabbing breasts, tweaking thong underwear” and “hitting a female aide in the face.”

Last Monday, Green Party representative Denis Baupin resigned as deputy speaker of parliament after French media outlets reported testimony from women who said he assaulted them in the office over the last 15 years. Baupin denies the allegations, and an investigation has been launched.

“I left the room and in the corridor outside, Denis Baupin came over, pushed me against the wall by my chest and tried to kiss me,” Sandrine Rousseau, a former spokeswoman for the Green Party, told Mediapart. “I pushed him away violently.”

The former deputy mayor of Le Mans, Elen Debost, said Baupin inundated her phone with hundreds of text messages.

For the column’s signatories, among them International Monetary Fund director Christine Lagarde, these stories were the last straw. They called for comprehensive reforms to the law, criminal justice system and policing in order to better protect victims of sexual assault.

“To change things, we must take every part of this scourge: change attitudes in the world of politics, of work, facilitate judicial procedures, encourage health professionals to detect violence,” they wrote, noting that the current safeguards were ineffective.

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The ministers’ suggestions include establishing a dedicated department within the police force to field complaints and offering better compensation to sexual harassment victims. They noted that such actions were particularly appalling from “those who write the laws,” who should be “irreproachable.”

“We are writing to say that, this time, it’s gone too far,” the column said. “The code of silence is no longer possible…In the majority of cases, women who denounce acts of sexual harassment lose their jobs. They are thus doubly victims.”

They concluded: “We would like not to repeat this. We would have loved to have never written this column.”

In a separate article in Journal de Dimanche, the signatories and others recounted their personal experiences with sexual harassment.

Delphine Batho and Aurelie Filippetti, who were elected as deputy ministers for the first time in 2007, said they were mocked during their first meeting with the Socialist Party. “Ah! The blonde and the brunette,” said one colleague. “Ah! Here we have the most beautiful…”

To this, one of the party’s leaders retorted: “The most beautiful perhaps, but not the most intelligent.”

Marisol Touraine, the minister of health and social affairs, said she was once asked in the refreshment room of the National Assembly: “Do you know the difference between a minute of anal sex and a minute of oral sex?” Another politician interjected: “Do you have two minutes?”

“It’s not just verbal,” Rama Yade, one of the signatories and a former secretary of state for foreign affairs and human rights, told Journal de Dimanche. “There are those who fondle you, who put two hands around your waist and squeeze.”

These declarations come amidst years of mounting scrutiny around sexism in French politics, which began in 2011 with the trials of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former finance minister and IMF director charged with sexual assault. Later, his name would be associated with sex parties and prostitution, though he was never convicted for his alleged crimes.

A book published last month, “L’Elysee Off,” claims that Finance Minister Michel Sapin pulled the elastic of a journalist’s underwear during the 2015 World Economic Forum, saying, “Ah, but what have we here?” Sapin told Agence France-Presse last week that he had simply touched her back, for which he apologized.

Likewise, a Buzzfeed News article this March accused Territories Minister Jean-Michel Baylet of hitting a female aide in the face.

“No more impunity,” the current and former female ministers wrote in their column. “We aren’t staying quiet anymore.”

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