France Finally Confronts Its Child Sex Legacy
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The country is debating its complex history with child sex.
By Michael Pooler
Once-acclaimed French author Gabriel Matzneff is distinguished by his taste for a taboo that today draws almost universal revulsion.
For years Matzneff, who was born to Russian émigré parents, wrote with seeming impunity about his sexual relations with adolescents and children, his revelations proving no obstacle to accolades and state funding. But the octogenarian is now at the center of a scandal that has rocked the country’s literary establishment following publication of a book, describing the author as a predator and pedophile, by a woman who says Matzneff groomed her for sex when she was a child.
In Le Consentement — or Consent — Vanessa Springora recounts her alleged experiences in the 1980s, when, she says, at age 14, she had a relationship with the then 50-year-old Matzneff. French law sets the age of sexual consent at 15.
“He was not a good man,” writes Springora, now 47 and head of a publishing house. “He was what we are taught to dread from childhood: an ogre.”
The affair has forced the country to reckon with a not-so-distant era when such illegal behavior was tolerated — even defended — by some intellectuals and often went unchallenged by the media and public institutions. It is the latest example of outrage in France provoked by men accused of sex crimes, from Roman Catholic priests to prominent figures such as the late Jeffrey Epstein and his collaborators to icons like filmmaker Roman Polanski. French authorities have opened an investigation into Matzneff, who has denied any wrongdoing, and last week the publisher Gallimard said it would end the sale of his diaries.
There was a time in France when having a little one as a sexual partner was accepted by society.… This is over — big-time.
Homayra Sellier, founder, Innocence in Danger
Instead of #MeToo, French women used the cruder #BalanceTonPorc (Rat Out Your Pig) to channel their anger over sexist behavior at work and in the streets, but little had emerged from the literary and intellectual scene. The Matzneff scandal appears to be a watershed moment that has sparked soul-searching and a renewed debate around sexual assault and the age of consent.
“There was a time in France when having a little one as a sexual partner was accepted by society. It was maybe even a sign of a kind of elegance or refinement. This is over — big-time,” says Homayra Sellier, founder of Innocence in Danger, a nongovernmental organization seeking to protect children against violence and abuse.
Matzneff’s mores were nurtured in the permissive culture that flourished in the wake of the May 1968 protest movement, which led to sexual liberation and radical changes in society.
In a sign of just how far boundaries were pushed, a petition published in Le Monde and Libération newspapers in 1977 defended sexual relations between adults and children. Luminaries such as Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Roland Barthes were among the signatories.
Long after Matzneff’s book The Under 16s left no secret about his tendencies, and other works by him included graphic descriptions and mentioned children as young as 8, the writer was awarded the Renaudot essay prize in 2013.
Rodolphe Costantino, a lawyer who represents child sexual exploitation victims, says views such as Matzneff’s were held only by a “tiny intellectual minority.” “For most French citizens, it was unacceptable and intolerable,” he says.
What has changed is the lifting of taboos around victims speaking out, as well a realization by the public of the long-term consequences of abuse, Costantino says.
The backlash against Matzneff has led to mea culpas from figures who, with hindsight, are regarded as having shown complacency. Bernard Pivot, host of a popular literary TV show on which Matzneff appeared, has said that in the 1970s and ’80s, “literature came before morality.” He expressed “regrets” for not having called out the behavior.
The strength of public feeling for some observers represents a rupture with a past where high-profile figures were often above the law. Springora’s Le Consentement is currently the best-selling book on Amazon France.
Jérôme Fourquet, a political scientist at pollster Ifop, told Le Figaro newspaper: “In the new world, clemency and impunity reserved for the elites is no more.”
With doubts about whether Matzneff will face charges because of the time that has elapsed since Springora’s allegations, campaigners are pushing for an end to the statute of limitations barring the prosecution of crimes that took place before a certain date.
The episode has also sparked calls for France’s age of consent to be reviewed and for stricter laws punishing sex with underage children.
Matzneff appears unrepentant, dismissing Springora’s account as a “disparaging, hostile, blackened portrait” that seeks to paint him as “a manipulator, a predator, a bastard.”
“I find it idiotic, over-the-top that I am complained about in 2020 for books published 30, even 40 years ago,” he wrote in a letter to TV channel BFM last week.
Matzneff still has a few defenders. Josyane Savigneau, the former book editor of Le Monde, dismissed the scandal on Twitter as a “witch hunt.” At the Écume des Pages bookshop in the Saint-Germain neighborhood, a bastion of the Paris literary scene, the writer’s most recent diary, published in November, has sold out. Before the scandal erupted, Matzneff “was almost forgotten, except by a small group of readers,” says one employee.
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