“To fight the patriarchy, the first thing you have to do is go inside the houses,” says the French-Moroccan novelist Leïla Slimani. “For a very long time there was this idea that behind closed doors of houses no one can speak, no one can say what is happening to wives, to children. There was this idea that, OK, you can go against someone at work [who] had this attitude against you, or against someone who outside the house had committed a crime. But the idea that you would attack a father or a husband was still taboo . . . Now we are opening Pandora’s box: what is happening inside our own house.”
The global #MeToo movement that erupted in 2017 was initially said to have skipped France. The French supposedly enjoyed the delicious game between men and women too much to police it. But now #MeToo à la française is blowing the roof off the French house. Bestselling memoirs on paedophilia and incest by Vanessa Springora and Camille Kouchner have destroyed reputations and careers among the Parisian elite. Slimani herself has used the reach of French literature to attack the hypocritical mores of her native Morocco. Here is a new French sexual revolution, and it’s a reckoning with the previous one: 1968.
France has been celebrated for centuries as the home of romantic love. However, it was still a surprisingly sexually restrictive Catholic nation at the start of 1968. This was an era when Yvonne de Gaulle, the president’s wife, pressured her husband to keep divorcés and adulterers out of government. The birth-control pill had just been legalised, but few young unmarried women could procure it. Abortion remained banned, and many women died having illegal ones. And on university campuses filling with baby-boomers, men and women weren’t allowed into each others’ residences.
On January 8 1968, the minister for youth and sport, François Missoffe, visited the new university campus at Nanterre outside Paris to inspect the recently installed swimming pool. A Franco-German student named Daniel Cohn-Bendit approached him for a light, and, puffing away, complained about sexual frustration among the young. Missoffe recommended he take a cooling dive in the pool.
By that May, Cohn-Bendit, “Danny the Red”, was leading the Parisian student revolution, with its playful slogans like “It is forbidden to forbid”, and “Enjoy unhindered”. That hot spring, naked bodies sprawled in Parisian parks. Women began asserting their right to enjoy sex, too.
Many soixante-huitards (“sixty-eighters”) emerged from their revolution believing that even children had that right. In 1975 Cohn-Bendit wrote about erotic encounters with children in the “anti-authoritarian kindergarten” he ran in Frankfurt. (He later said he had written this only in order to “shock the bourgeoisie”, and denied ever having touched a child. Kindergarten parents backed him.)
Gabriel Matzneff was just one of several French writers in the 1970s purveying paedophilia. In 1977, his petition defending sex between adults and children appeared in Le Monde and Libération newspapers, signed by cultural luminaries including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Roland Barthes and Bernard Kouchner.
A year later, France welcomed the film-maker Roman Polanski, who had fled the US after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl. As late as 2005, Frédéric Mitterrand could write in his prizewinning book about sexual tourism that he had “got into the habit” of paying “boys” for sex. He said later that he condemned paedophilia and never practised it. In any case, the book didn’t stop him being minister of culture from 2009 to 2012. In 2013, Matzneff won the Prix Renaudot.
For decades, a large chunk of the post-1968 Parisian literary elite endorsed paedophilia. That carried weight. “I think France is fairly exceptional in its relationship to literature,” Slimani told me. “You go to a small village and 300 people come to hear you talk about literature. That’s part of the French soul, this relationship with writers.”
Now French literary power is confronting paedophilia. This January, Camille Kouchner published her La familia grande (yet to appear in English). She was born in 1975 to the prominent soixante-huitards Évelyne Pisier and Bernard Kouchner, the co-founder of Médecins Sans Frontières.
Pisier’s parenting mantra was “It is forbidden to forbid”. After divorcing Kouchner, she married a fellow professor of law, Olivier Duhamel. He had been a student at Nanterre in 1968. The family lived near the Jardin du Luxembourg on the Left Bank, epicentre of May 1968, and spent summers with like-minded friends — “la familia grande” of Kouchner’s title — in Duhamel’s palatial residence near Toulon. Children and adults hung out naked together by the pool. “Some parents and children kiss on the mouth,” recalls Camille Kouchner. “Young men are offered to older women.” The children’s dormitory there was covered with posters from 1968. Camille fell asleep each night beneath the ironic slogan, “Be young and shut up”.
Some parents in this milieu believed in initiating their children into sex. According to Kouchner’s account, Pisier arranged for her adolescent son’s virginity to be taken by an adult family friend and urged 11-year-old Camille to start having sex. It was in this atmosphere that Camille’s twin brother told her, aged about 14, that their stepfather Duhamel had begun sexually abusing him. Neither child was sure this was wrong. They didn’t want to upset their mother by speaking out. And the brother fretted that since he hadn’t resisted Duhamel, he may have consented.
Around that time, a few streets away, 14-year-old Vanessa Springora was dating the writer of paedophile literature Matzneff, then 50. Her mother’s close friends knew. Even the police were tipped off by anonymous letters (possibly sent, perversely, by Matzneff himself). However, they were too respectful of a famous author to trouble him much.
In her memoir Consent, Springora tries to explain why her mother allowed the relationship: “My mother confided to me that during her adolescence, the body and its desires were still taboo and her parents never spoke to her about sexuality. She had just turned eighteen in ’68 . . . ‘It is forbidden to forbid’ undoubtedly remained a mantra for her.”
Incest and paedophilia happen in all milieus, but in France they were protected by the soixante-huitards who filled the politico-cultural elite. Several members and hangers-on of the “familia grande” prospered within François Mitterrand’s Socialist government from 1981 to 1995, writes Camille Kouchner.
But the next literary generation hit back at 1968. Slimani’s first novel, Dans le jardin de l’ogre (2014, later translated into English as Adèle) recounts a woman’s endless string of joyless sexual encounters. It can be read as a retort to The Sexual Life of Catherine M. (2002), by soixante-huitard art critic Catherine Millet, which recounts a woman’s endless string of joyous encounters.
“As a woman, to be very honest, the discovery of sexuality for me was a real disappointment,” explains Slimani. “I think sexuality is very often sad or melancholic. When I was a teenager, watching movies or reading books, they are giving you a very glamorous vision of sex, as if everything was beautiful and it was only about love and power. But the truth is that very often it can be gloomy. It’s just two naked bodies making noise, you know? So I wanted to write about that.”
Another great contemporary French novelist, Michel Houellebecq, has a similarly unillusioned view of sex. His standard main character is a godless Frenchman living unrooted in an ugly modernity in which sex and everything else have been reduced to a consumerist free market. Houellebecq told me he was the atomised man that his novels decry: “I’m railing against myself.”
Slimani remarks: “Even if his characters are obsessed with sex, I don’t have the feeling that the sex in Houellebecq’s books is very joyful. Very often the characters are disappointed, or they try to imitate the pornography and this kind of attitude, but they feel nothing and they don’t really have the feeling of being powerful men. This is a great writer about masculinity.”
How do Houellebecq’s novels and hers fit with stereotypes about French sexuality? She replies: “I think a lot of people are fed up with this idea that here in France it’s all about romanticism and eroticism, and that we know so much about sex.”
After #MeToo erupted in the US, many younger French women went on social media to report their experiences of sexual violence, using the hashtag “#balancetonporc” (“Squeal on your pig”). But Millet and the actress Catherine Deneuve were among 100 mostly older Frenchwomen who signed a petition against #MeToo. They compared the new “puritanism” to “the good old days of witchcraft”, adding that men’s freedom to pester was “essential to sexual freedom”. Slimani comments: “Those women accepted a lot from men. So ‘I will touch your ass, I will touch your breast, but it’s not harassment. It’s galanterie à la française.’” Deneuve soon apologised to victims of sexual assault.
The soixante-huitard rejection of #MeToo was also a rejection of the US. The French public are keen consumers of American culture. Perhaps for that reason, the Parisian artistic elite had long defined itself by contrast with its transatlantic rival. Springora recalls Matzneff in the 1980s inveighing against “sexually frustrated” Americans who had persecuted “poor Polanski”. Now, if American puritans were pushing #MeToo, then #MeToo must be bad.
But nearly four years later, the Springora and Kouchner books have launched a homegrown French version of #MeToo. Both women spent decades wracked by the guilty feeling that they had consented to the abuse — a common experience for child victims. When Kouchner’s brother finally dared tell their mother, she accused him of trying to steal her man.
Springora and Kouchner liberated themselves through writing. Springora has reduced Matzneff to a character in her book, just as he had done to her. Kouchner speaks of immuring Duhamel within her pages. Both women deny the abusers the honour of naming them: Matzneff is “G.” throughout Le Consentement, while Kouchner refers only to “my stepfather”.
The horrors that Kouchner describes turn out to be shockingly common. Her book prompted a national outpouring of heart-rending testimonies on social media, under the hashtag #MeTooInceste: “I was 15, my brother . . .”, “It was the cool uncle of the family”, “I was five. In one evening, my mother’s brother destroyed my innocence . . . In one second I was a hundred years old.” In a poll by Ipsos last November, one French person in 10 broke the biggest taboo to say they had been victims of incest. Seventy-eight per cent of victims were women.
Once again, writers have changed the French sexual climate. The publishers of Matzneff (now 84) have withdrawn his books, including his five-volume paedophilic journals. And far mightier figures are falling. Camille Kouchner’s stepfather Duhamel has resigned as president of Le Siècle, chief dining club of the French elite. His only comment about the book was that he was the target of “personal attacks”. His friend Marc Guillaume resigned from Le Siècle, but remains prefect of the Paris region. He says he hadn’t known about the incest. Asked by Le Monde newspaper whether he had been told about it in 2018, before he proposed Duhamel for the Siècle’s presidency, he refused to answer.
Duhamel’s associate Élisabeth Guigou resigned as president of France’s Commission on Incest. She insists she only learned about his crimes from the book, though Camille Kouchner wrote that the whole “familia grande” knew a decade ago.
Frédéric Mion, director of Duhamel’s university Sciences Po, another landmark of the Left Bank, resigned when it emerged that he hadn’t acted against Duhamel after hearing about the incest. Duhamel and Matzneff will presumably avoid jail, because the statute of limitations on their crimes has expired. But in March the French parliament strengthened the law on underage sex, specifying that children under 15 cannot legally consent to it.
Parisian writers reach all countries of “la Francophonie”, the French-speaking world. Slimani’s recent book Sex and Lies, about Morocco, has contributed to an artistic assault on a culture where men control women’s bodies and homosexuality remains taboo. Her fellow Paris-based native Moroccan Abdellah Taïa has become the first openly gay autobiographical writer published in Morocco.
This sexual revolution is also being screened. Last year’s documentary Room 2806: The Accusation revisits the arrest in May 2011 of the French head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, suspected of assaulting a chambermaid in New York. He was later released without charges. Separately, though, French journalist Tristane Banon said he had assaulted her in 2003. Banon’s mother — an ex-lover of Strauss-Kahn’s and an official in his Socialist party — dissuaded her from pressing charges at the time. This fits the pattern of women of the soixante-huitard generation — including the mothers of Camille Kouchner and Springora — shielding male attackers. After all, it was forbidden to forbid.
Banon notes the “consanguinity” and clublike nature of these elite milieus. Strauss-Kahn and Duhamel were born in the wealthy suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1949 and 1950, and Guillaume in 1964. Duhamel’s friend Guigou pops up again as a supportive voice in the Strauss-Kahn documentary. An entire generation of the cultural elite was complicit with Strauss-Kahn: Jack Lang, former minister of culture and signatory of the pro-paedophilia petition of 1977, remarked after the alleged assault in New York that nobody had died, while the writer Bernard-Henri Lévy (raised in Neuilly) complained that American justice was treating his high-status chum “like just another person”. Lévy called Banon a publicity-seeker who “pretends to have been the victim of attempted rape”.
Until Strauss-Kahn’s arrest, many power brokers were backing him to become Socialist candidate for the presidential elections of 2012, even though his proclivities were an open secret in their circles. As early as 2007, Jean Quatremer, Libération’s correspondent in Brussels, had written about Strauss-Kahn’s issues with women: “Too heavy-handed, he often borders on harassment. A failing known to the media but about which no one speaks (we are in France).”
Things have changed. Femicides — historically glamorised in French media as “crimes of passion” — are now denounced by graffiti all over Paris. Powerful French institutions and men have lost their impunity: the Catholic church is to create a fund to compensate victims of abuse by clergy; the actor Gérard Depardieu has been charged with rape; 10 women have accused former TV newsreader Patrick Poivre d’Arvor of sexual crimes; Jean-Luc Brunel, former head of a modelling agency and associate of the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, is being investigated for “rape of a minor over 15 and sexual harassment”. All three men deny the accusations. What is happening in France obviously sits in an international context: see for instance the British website Everyone’s Invited, on which thousands of young people have written anonymous testimonies of sexual abuse, harassment and assault in schools.
“We belong to the gender of fear,” wrote French novelist Virginie Despentes. “It’s unbearable that we are afraid all the time,” says Slimani. “My [male] writer friends, they tell me, ‘When I want to write, I need to walk outside, so I walk and I think of nothing,’ but as a woman it’s impossible. I can’t walk and think of nothing and not look behind my shoulder to see if someone is following me. We have to do something for our daughters and for the next generation not to live in this fear. It should be over.”
Some soixante-huitards, grown old in their increasingly pricey apartments around the Jardin du Luxembourg, but still powerful in cultural life, quietly grumble about “a new puritanism”. That’s mistaken. The central achievement of their revolution — sexual liberty between consenting adults — remains standing. But the new generation questions what consent is: can a minor ever grant it? Or a woman in a junior role at work?
Across the western world, the new romantic ideal is the equal relationship. That’s why France in 2013 legalised the ultimate equal relationship — gay marriage — and is now finally cracking down on the most unequal, paedophilia. There is one constant: French writers lead the way.
Simon Kuper is an FT columnist
Follow @FTLifeArts on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first