Sexual Abuse: Literature Inspiring Change in French Society

In Consent, recently released in the United States, publisher Vanessa Springora recounts how Gabriel Matzneff wielded considerable sexual and psychological influence over her when she was just 14. Originally published in January 2020 in the wake of the #MeToo movement, her work has inspired countless others to come forward with their own stories, and a new bill was recently passed by the French parliament. A year after Springora’s work burst into bookstores, lawyer Camille Kouchner’s book La Familia grande has also broken the veil of silence, this time surrounding incest, and sparked a major societal debate.
Vanessa Springora. © Bénédicte Roscot; Camille Kouchner. © Frédéric Stucin

A violent storm is raging far beyond the confines of the French literary and intellectual scenes. The same situation is playing out once again, twelve months later. A literary work kept secret and put out by a leading publishing house has sent shockwaves through society and ignited a conversation about sexual violence and child abuse. In January 2020, Vanessa Springora, director of Les Editions Julliard, offered a chilling personal account. A ruthless and intelligent response to a predator who, protected by part of the Parisian intelligentsia, stole her adolescence.

Springora, the daughter of a press secretary in the publishing industry, was only 14 when G., a 50-year-old French writer of Russian origin with the “physique of an emaciated Buddhist monk,” took her to his attic room. Many recognize the initial as Gabriel Matzneff, the author of the 1974 book Les moins de seize ans (“Under 16”), who made his desire for girls and boys the subject of his writing.The young Springora was totally in his power over the next two years as he wove a terrifying web in which she lost all self-confidence and turned her back on her friends and her studies. By daring to write about her experience 30 years after the facts, she is now fighting her demons on her own terms and taking back power with the weapons of literature.

Consent sold out and had to be reprinted just a week after it was published, unleashing a public debate on the silence hanging over the elite literary world and the inner workings of its awards (Matzneff won the 2013 Prix Renaudot thanks to his connections with jury members). The international press, including the New York Times, highlighted the close-knit nature of the Gallic elite, the collusion between political, media, and publishing spheres, and the typically French habit of placing literature above morality – thereby enabling the writer’s impunity for more than 40 years, despite several run-ins with the child protection unit of the French police.

Quebecer journalist Denise Bombardier, a guest on the renowned literary show Apostrophes in 1990, was the only one to condemn the pedophilia inherent in his work while faced with a panel of complicit authors. Consent – which has sold 160,000 copies in France alone – made a real impact in the country. Despite the statute of limitations (in French law, victims must report a crime no more than 30 years after they come of legal age), the public prosecutor’s office opened an investigation. Accused of underage rape and of promoting his crimes, Matzneff will be judged in September 2021.

Bis repetita

On January 7, 2021, lawyer Camille Kouchner, the daughter of humanitarian doctor and former minister Bernard Kouchner, made waves by publishing La Familia grande. In this brave account, she accuses her stepfather, renowned professor and influential political scientist Olivier Duhamel, of sexually abusing her twin brother, referred to as “Victor,” when he was 14. While their mother, a highly acclaimed law professor, was made aware of the events in 2008 (as were other loved ones), the cloak of silence prevailed.

The Sciences Po professor and lawyer, director of the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques and of the highly selective club Le Siècle, had a vast, influential network. Camille and “Victor” Kouchner’s aunt, actress Marie-France Pisier, wanted to speak out about these crimes, but died before she was able to. “This silence is not just cowardice,” writes Camille Kouchner. “Some of them are delighted about saying nothing. It is yet another, ever-necessary part of their identity. Whether on the left or in the bourgeois classes, ‘you don’t air your dirty laundry in public.’ Much like in the salons of Madame de La Fayette, the cream of society relishes in perversity but never wants to share. Even when crimes are committed, even against 14-year-old children. You have to be in on the secret to belong to the Court, the Familia grande, so busy with its scheming.”

As with the Matzneff scandal, the public prosecutor’s office opened an investigation despite the statute of limitations. Olivier Duhamel, who has refused to confirm anything publicly, has stepped down from all his functions. The publication of this latest work has reignited the debate over whether the statute of limitations should apply to incest. What’s more, since January 16, thousands of testimonials from other victims of sexual abuse have appeared on social media under the hashtag #MeTooInceste. And the numbers just keep growing. Originally put forward in November 2020 following two criminal cases in which the victims were 11-year-old girls, a bill for “improving the protection of underage victims of rape and sexual assault” was expanded and adopted at its first reading by the French Senate on January 21. The law criminalizes any sexual act between an adult and a minor under the age of 13, enhances the definition of rape, and applies more severe sanctions to incestuous sexual abuse.

What Camille Kouchner recounts in her book is not simply the product of a certain milieu – the political-media elite of former revolutionaries turned champagne socialists – but rather a system that has allowed predators to act with impunity. In the words of historian Laure Murat in an opinion piece published in Libération, “Being shocked by the crimes without looking at the system that made them possible means failing to realize the tragedy or even imagine the true horror of it. It means considering crimes as isolated incidents without further development or consequences. It means molesting these children a second time as adults.” It is this system that France, somewhat belatedly, is beginning to question, thanks to two literary works and the bravery of their authors.

Article published in the March 2021 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.