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

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

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alleging rape by Hulot in 1997, and an allegation of sexual harassment from an employee of his foundation (which was withdrawn in exchange for financial compensation).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.”

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.

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.

Pauline Bock writes about France, the Macron presidency, Brexit and EU citizens in the UK. She also happens to be French.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game