The controversy began in January, when the publisher Vanessa Springora released her new book, “Le Consentement,” or “Consent,” in which she details how Matzneff, then 50, manipulatively drew her into a sexual relationship when she was just 14. Matzneff denies her allegations. Now, the elites who long welcomed him into their exclusive circles are distancing themselves, and Wednesday, the 83-year-old author was charged with promoting sexual abuse of children. In France, although it is illegal for an adult to engage in sexual contact with a child under the age of 15, the charge of sexual relations with a child incurs a lesser penalty than rape — in contrast to the statutory rape laws that exist in the United States and elsewhere.
Unlike the Harvey Weinsteins or Jeffrey Epsteins of the world, Matzneff’s actions weren’t just quietly tolerated; they were at the heart of his writing, for which he was lionized. He received literary accolades for decades, as recently as a few years ago; in November, Gallimard, one of France’s most esteemed publishers, published his new book. When he did face rare criticism, he expressed no remorse, once stating, “if my tales of little boys and little girls create a scandal, it’s simply because people are afraid of paradise.” Prominent essayists, critics and politicians likened his explicit pedophilia to “unrepentant seduction” and “libertinism” — a culture of indulgent pleasures considered central to French identity and sexual freedom.
But in the month since Springora’s book was published, Matzneff’s protective cocoon has started to disintegrate. Gallimard swiftly pledged to halt all sales of his new book; France’s culture minister said he would no longer receive the annual government funds allocated to certain writers; on Tuesday, the police called on victims to come forward; on Wednesday, they raided Gallimard’s Paris offices, looking for unpublished passages that could bolster the case for criminal wrongdoing.
When the #MeToo movement erupted a little over two years ago, many in France brushed it off as yet another example of so-called American puritanism or excessive “political correctness.” The actress Catherine Deneuve and a hundred other public figures famously denounced #MeToo’s assault on men’s “right to bother.” The prominent feminist writer Elisabeth Badinter warned that “boys are afraid, and girls are too, and the consequences will be long term.” Sandra Muller, the woman credited with bringing the movement to France, paid 20,000 euros (or $22,000) in defamation charges to the man she accused; media mammoth Frédéric Haziza was suspended for just one month after an employee accused him of sexual misconduct; Éric Monier, another media behemoth, maintained his post as head of television station LCI after 13 women accused him of assault or harassment; accusations against government ministers or film industry big-shots Luc Besson and Gérard Depardieu failed to resonate.
This record reveals much about France’s contradictions — and conservatism — when it comes to women’s emancipation. The country claims to champion gender equality and sexual freedom — as long as men control the narrative. Matzneff, his enablers and apologists felt, was simply doing what he liked. “I absolutely do not see myself as an ‘old man,’” Matzneff wrote in one of his journals, which the publisher Sandre released in 2010. The girls he slept with, he went on, “form an adolescent crown that makes me forget my age”; he denounced the “moralists” who got in his way.
This framework allowed men like Matzneff to not just downplay allegations but also explicitly boast about sexual assault, pedophilia and rape, and cast criticism as a betrayal of the libertine ideals central to the French way of life. And so it’s no surprise that, when women have rebelled against the very value system considered essential to their sexual liberation, the establishment has refused to listen.
But recently, the tide has been shifting. The Matzneff controversy comes amid a surge of progress for the #MeToo movement, with many cases centering on the abuse of minors. In November, actress Adèle Haenel accused the director Christophe Ruggia of sexually harassing her when she was as young as 12 and assaulting her as a minor; he was indicted in January. And this week, Didier Gailhaguet, the chief of the French Federation of Ice Sports, resigned after five female figure-skaters accused their coaches of sexual harassment, abuse and rape, sparking a larger conversation about sexual violence in sports. In an open letter, 54 French Olympic athletes called Gailhaguet’s resignation the “first crack in the wall of silence.” Gailhaguet, who had initially denied any wrongdoing, resigned only after the sports minister called on him to step down — a rare instance of government intervention.
For the first time, women are getting a chance to upend France’s so-called rules of seduction. There is hope that Matzneff’s case — the sheer obviousness of it, the fact that his behavior was lying in plain sight — will be the nail in the coffin of a system that grants legitimacy to men’s every desire.