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12 February 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:26pm

The feminist credentials of Macron’s cabinet are under threat from sexual assault allegations

France’s “Pestminster” is taking place in Macron’s cabinet.

By Pauline Bock

As Westminster is still reeling from the “Pestminster” revelations, French politics is also grappling with its own debates around sexual harassment and assault, after two members of Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet were accused of sexual assault.

Nicolas Hulot, Macron’s environment minister, has been accused of sexual harrassment and rape in an investigation published on 9 February by the magazine Ebdo. The article details a complaint made in 2008 alleging rape by Hulot in 1997, and an allegation of sexual harassment from an employee of his foundation (which was withdrawn in exchange for financial compensation). The magazine has said it has been contacted by more women with similar accusations since publication.

A few weeks before the article on Hulot, on 27 January, the Paris prosecutor reopened an investigation into budget minister Gérald Darmanin, who is accused of having manipulated a woman into having sex with him in 2009, an offence which in France is classed as a form of rape, when he was a 26-year-old lawyer. (In the UK, the Sexual Offences Act 2003 defines rape as intentional penetration of another without their consent, and no reasonable grounds to believe consent has been given). 

Both ministers pre-emptively denied the allegations before publication. Hulot called “ignominious” the “rumours” around him when he spoke on TV on 8 February. “I have no comment to make on this case that isn’t one,” he said. “I have nothing to feel ashamed of.” Darmanin brought up the topic on the French broadcaster France Info, declaring: “All of this is false”, before the prosecutor’s decision to reopen the case was made public (it had been closed last July after his accuser failed to attend a police hearing, but she had asked for it to be opened again).

In both cases, the government’s line was the same: president Macron and prime minister Edouard Philippe declared their “full support” for their ministers. “The presumption of innocence is the rule for everyone, whatever the allegations,” said the government’s spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux on Darmanin’s case; and again, about Hulot: “There is no case, there are rumours.” Matignon, the PM’s residence, told the AFP: “We have no reason to doubt his word.”

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Unless Darmanin or Hulot are placed under official investigation, the government’s line will hold. But allegations, true or not, against the cabinet of a president who campaigned on a feminist platform and promised change are not a great look.

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It is not the first time the French cabinet has failed to live up to Macron’s grand vision for equal rights. The devil used to be in the details: half of the ministers are women (although they were given minor ministries); equality was made a “great national cause” (but funding for women’s refuges was cut in the budget); Macron promised to name a woman prime minster (yet failed to find one suitable for the position). Macron also timed a speech about equality to coincide with the peak of the #metoo movement, which his wife openly supports.

Now the early insistence in offering “full support” for the accused cabinet members, before the allegations have been tested, makes it difficult for Macron to claim to also support the #metoo movement, its focus on taking allegations seriously, and its demands that women should are given a fair hearing.

Government ministers have also piled in to criticise Ebdo, which is a new magazine – the investigation into Hulot is published in the fifth issue. The article was criticised for its vagueness (as many other French newsrooms were working on the Hulot case, Ebdo decided to publish first). Secretary of state for equality Marlène Schiappa called it “irresponsible” in an op-ed for a Sunday paper. But since other journalists were researching the case, it seems likely that it would ultimately have been reported, by Ebdo or another title. 

Back in May 2017, Macron decided to fire centrist ministers as they were investigated for “fake” jobs, as his government was about to pass a law on the “moralisation of politics”. In comparison, the seemingly unquestioning support for two ministers accused of sexual assault suggests he is less concerned about living up to his feminist rhetoric.