The origin of this anger was an account from a woman named Sophie Patterson-Spatz, who accused Darmanin of raping her in 2009 when he was a municipal councilor in the north of France. According to Patterson-Spatz, she was pressured by Darmanin after requesting his legal help. Darmanin acknowledges he had sexual intercourse with her, but says that it was consensual and accuses Patterson-Spatz of slander. Though the case was dismissed by a justice in 2018, a French court ordered the investigation to reopen in June, a few weeks before his promotion.
Separately, LGBTQ activists have called attention to the fact that Darmanin was opposed to same-sex marriage when it was being debated and took part in the conservative protests.
The government’s response to these concerns has been disappointing and hypocritical.
As the protests started to emerge on social media, the administration backed Darmanin, saying the accusations “were not an obstacle to his appointment as the minister of the interior,” according to an official source. During his Bastille Day official interview, President Emmanuel Macron went even further, saying that he had a “man-to-man” talk with Darmanin — itself a nod to patriarchal culture — and claiming that he may be the “victim” of “streets judgments.”
But the issue here is political rather than legal. In the past, ministers have resigned after being accused of matters much less serious than rape, which under French law is considered a crime at the same level as murder. And in this case, Darmanin’s appointment came while there was a serious investigation looming. As the minister of the interior, he is the highest authority over the police. That makes him the head of the institution that is supposed to lead the investigation on his case.
The decision and subsequent defense can only be interpreted as a slap in the face of women and LGBTQ activists who have been calling for a full investigation and justice. This is at odds with Macron’s declaration, when he was elected in 2017, that gender equality would be the “great cause” of his five-year term. He appointed Marlène Schiappa as a cabinet member in charge of gender equality to address these issues. Even with a budget lower than that of her predecessors, Schiappa built an image as a champion for women’s rights. In the government reshuffling this month, she is to work under Darmanin, sending a confusing message about the government’s priorities.
When interviewed, Schiappa stood strongly by Darmanin. She said that, “being a feminist forever,” she would “never have accepted” working “with a man guilty of rape” and added that she was “seeing the attempts of political exploitation from those who are systematically opposing the government.” Her tone was dismissive to women demonstrating in the streets, further giving the impression the government was not taking their rage seriously.
But Darmanin was not the only target of protesters, who held up signs mentioning “a rapist at the Interior and an accomplice at Justice.” The new minister of justice, Éric Dupond-Moretti, is under scrutiny from women’s right activists as well. Known for being one of the loudest voices criticizing the so-called excesses of the #MeToo movement, his attacks on the movement have resurfaced. He notably criticized “madwomen who were telling crap” and claimed that “dominance exists” but “there are also some women who are sexually excited by the power.”
In response, a petition “for a government that does not promote racism, rape culture or LGBTQIA+phobia” was widely signed relayed by public figures such as popular singers Camélia Jordana and Angèle. And the controversy is now going global. This week, a group of 91 intellectuals and feminist activists from more than 35 countries, including Nobel laureates Shirin Ebadi and Svetlana Alexievitch, have published an open letter condemning “an anti-feminist shift, whose scope goes beyond the French borders."
The protests against Darmanin and Dupond-Moretti, and the lack of adequate response from those in power, reflect France’s long track record of neglecting and even silencing women’s concerns about sexual violence. But the outrage these decisions have catalyzed show that attitudes might finally be changing — particularly among young French women, who are no longer abiding by outdated views on feminism and consent.
“Girls from my age will not let anything go anymore,” one of the protesters told the newspaper Liberation. In a country where the #MeToo movement has not been able to provoke the fall of any of the male icons accused of rape or sex harassment, a new generation is taking to the streets, determined to defy the patriarchy.