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A proudly feminist lawyer takes a lead role fighting sexual violence in France

Students in Paris protest sexual harassment in early March, their signs denouncing rape and silence around sexual violence as well as urging victims to seek help. “You will never be alone again,” reads the placard at right. (Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images)

PARIS — The law was not on her side, but Elodie Tuaillon-Hibon didn't hesitate to say yes when women started seeking her help in late 2017.

What they needed: someone to pursue their complaints of sexual assault against high-profile figures such as actor Gérard Depardieu and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. Just as important: someone who would understand their pain.

“I am a feminist,” Tuaillon-Hibon told herself. “I will handle these cases differently.”

With that, the reserved, soft-spoken lawyer stepped into a harsh spotlight. The roles of sex, power and consent have long been blurred in France’s patriarchal society, with harassment often viewed more as seduction. Prominent women such as actress Catherine Deneuve have faulted the country’s #MeToo movement — known as #Balancetonporc, which translates to “squeal on your pig” — as excessive and harmful.

Yet Tuaillon-Hibon, 46, has pushed forward. She won her first big appeal last month, a case in which former government minister Georges Tron was accused of forcing two female employees to let him massage their feet and later sexually assaulting them. Tron was initially cleared in 2018. The appeals court reversed the ruling, saying the “seriousness of the accusations” merited a conviction, and handed down a five-year sentence for rape and sexual assault.

“The problem is, there are so many Trons in France,” Tuaillon-Hibon said in early March.

Among them, she believes, is 72-year-old Depardieu. Her client is an actress in her 20s whose name hasn’t been made public. The young woman alleges that Depardieu raped her at his Paris home in the summer of 2018 — a case that also was first dropped, then reopened after Tuaillon-Hibon pressed to have the evidence reexamined. Charges against Depardieu were filed in December.

It’s the same situation with Darmanin, who is accused of raping a woman named Sophie ­Patterson-Spatz in 2009 when he served on the municipal council of a small town in northern France. Patterson-Spatz said Darmanin forced her to have sex in exchange for assisting her with a legal matter. The case was dismissed in 2018, but Tuaillon-Hibon succeeded in getting it resurrected last June. Just weeks later, Darmanin was named interior minister and put in charge of the national police — the force handling his investigation.

The probe has not concluded, and French President Emmanuel Macron continues to defend his appointment.

“We hope these big cases act as a catalyst for other women to take the French justice system into their own hands,” said Marilyn Baldeck, general director of the European Association Against Violence Against Women at Work. She describes the lawyer as a determined fighter willing to accept the toughest cases.

Tuaillon-Hibon took a circuitous path to get to this point, growing up in a small rural community in northern France and a “traditional” household where education was essential but thinking out of the box was not encouraged. She found an escape in books, devouring the works of Marcel Proust, Charles Baudelaire and other beloved French writers.

Law was not on her mind until she was in her late 20s. Stuck in a rut without a career path, she called up an old friend asking for advice. The friend was in law school. “It’s actually really interesting,” she told Tuaillon-Hibon. “You should join me.”

So she did. After spending her first decade working in corporate law, she decided to transition to labor law in 2012 and opened her own small practice. One day, a client came in asking for help in filing a sexual harassment complaint against her boss. That was a new area for Tuaillon-Hibon. She contacted Baldeck, whose association helps victims pursue such action.

The two teamed on the case, and the experience ultimately pivoted her career.

“It was like somebody had lifted a curtain,” she said. “All the sudden, women from the north, south, east and west were coming to me with complaints of sexual abuse against mayors, city councilors and other prominent figures.”

Holding perpetrators to account remains extremely difficult in France.

By some measures, only 1 percent of individuals charged with sexual violence are ever convicted. Under the country’s penal code, charging someone with rape requires proof of “violence, coercion, threat or surprise.”

“Most victims are not good victims” given that threshold, Tuaillon-Hibon said. “It’s very rare that a rape happens like that, even with violence.”

When it comes to workplace issues, the numbers are equally discouraging. In a 2018 national poll, 1 in 3 French women said they had been sexually harassed at work. Nearly 1 in 10 said they’d been pressured to have sex with a boss in exchange for a promotion. But the rates of reporting are alarmingly low, with Interior Ministry figures showing that only about 20 percent of victims file complaints.

Tuaillon-Hibon cites American lawyer Gloria Allred as one of her heroes. Yet Allred, who has represented women in cases involving Donald Trump, Bill Cosby and other celebrities, seems to relish the glare of publicity. Tuaillon-Hibon is wary of media attention.

“France has a problem with activist lawyers,” she said. “You can’t have a cause. You can’t be engaged.”

Her activism, however, is exactly why dozens of women have sought her out. That and her embrace of what in France continues to be a controversial word, especially in the legal profession: feminist.

“You used to have women choosing any lawyer, no matter what he or she thought about women,” said longtime feminist activist Alice Coffin, a member of the Paris City Council who last year pushed for the resignation of a deputy mayor embroiled in sexual abuse controversies. “But I think it’s different for the victims today. They want to know they have a feminist on their side.”

As to why more women are stepping forward now, it may be a sign of the times. After a sluggish start, France is in the midst of what’s being described as a second #MeToo wave. The first one targeted powerful men generally. This one is centered mostly on child sexual abuse and incest. Both involve public confrontations of the alleged aggressors.

Some men, including Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti, criticize the movement as going too far. Momentum is building, though.

While the country prohibits sexual relations between an adult and a minor under the age of 15, it has no minimum age of consent. The government said last month that it would “act quickly” to amend statutes so that an adult who engages in sex with someone younger than 15 would be charged with rape. The announcement came a day before France’s highest appeals court considered the case of three firefighters who acknowledge having sex with a seriously troubled 13-year-old. The court ruled Wednesday that the men will only be charged with sexual assault.

Tuaillon-Hibon hopes her work will encourage more changes to the legal code that will make it easier for victims to come forward. Even now, women who speak out often risk their jobs and more.

“Most of them, especially those living in small towns, end up having to move because when you touch political people, your life just becomes impossible,” she said.

There’s so much progress yet to be made, in her view. One of the biggest challenges will be unraveling the “prehistoric” ideas many French still have about what women mean if they say no to sex.

“I pray for a third wave of #MeToo,” she stressed. “And I’m going to work for it.”

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