Finance Minister Michel Sapin. Photo: AFP
A book published this week by journalists Aziz Zemouri and Stéphanie Marteau set the French political scene alight on Friday.
The book, called “Elysée off”, claimed that at the economic summit in Davos last year, Finance Minister Michel Sapin “twanged the knickers” of a female journalist who was bending over to pick up a pen.
It prompted the hashtag of “Knickers Gate” (“Culotte Gate” in French) to circulate widely on French social media.
Sapin was forced to reject the story on Friday after his office initially dismissed the incident as a “schoolboy prank” and an “inappropriate gesture”.
“I categorically deny the inaccurate and scurrilous allegations that were published in a book in recent days,” he said, according to newspaper Le Parisien.
“I reserve the right to take any action necessary to set the record straight.”
However, the allegations were enough to prompt a strong reaction from French feminist organization Osez le Féminisme, which called for the minister’s resignation.
“This is very serious to us. You simply can’t be a representative of the French republic and have such a lack of respect for women,” the group’s spokeswoman Marie Allibert told The Local.
“The fact that he is denying it, and that others are just brushing it off as a ‘schoolboy prank’ or an ‘inappropriate gesture’ goes to show how quick people are to write off sexual assault as a joke.”
“This is a sexual harassment that is punishable by law.”
Sexual assault and harassment have been hot topics in the French press recently. In a survey of 600 women last year in Seine-Saint-Denis and Essonne, two areas in the outer suburbs of Paris, 100 percent of respondents said they had experienced at least some form of gender-based sexual harassment in their life while riding the train.
And female journalists themselves have been fighting for the cause.
In May last year, dozens of female political reporters published a petition denouncing sexism on the front page of the Liberation newspaper. The journalists said they were fed up with the bawdy remarks and wandering hands of France’s lecherous male politicians.
Allibert from Osez le Féminisme said that the fact journalists were speaking up was good news in the fight for gender equality.
“These journalists showed that we weren’t alone. But the fact that there are so few women in politics in France, especially at a high level, means that it will be all the harder to make things change,” she said.
She added that she “was sure” nothing would happen in terms of a potential resignation from Sapin.
“But all the same, we will push for his resignation, and all the more so because this government is supposed to be left wing and therefore supposedly interested in matters of gender equality.”
“When someone in a position of power, or someone in the public eye, manages to get away with this kind of thing, it just makes sexual harassment more taboo, harder to denounce, and harder to lodge complaints about.”