Younger people in France are having trouble understanding what was in the heads of their elders in the 1970s and 1980s. An outpouring of sad stories from women and men is giving the impression that in the heady free-for-all in the aftermath of the 1968 student revolt the Paris chattering classes, to put it mildly, turned a blind eye to sex with children and even incest.
Last week Richard Berry, 70, a long-admired film actor, became the latest star to fall after his daughter Coline Berry, an actress, reported him to prosecutors and went public with sordid allegations. He had made her play sexual games with him and his wife of the time, Jeane Manson, an American singer, when she was a little girl in the 1980s, she said.
Her claims, laid out in detail in Le Monde and other media along with his denials, hit the news while the older members of the Paris power establishment were still reeling from the bombshell that landed last month with La Familia Grande.
The book by Camille Kouchner, 46, a law professor and daughter of Dr Bernard Kouchner, a former cabinet minister, accused her stepfather Olivier Duhamel, 70, a top public intellectual and broadcaster, of sexually abusing her twin brother in the late 1980s when he was 13 and 14. Duhamel, an informal adviser to President Macron and head of the governors of Sciences Po, the university of the political and media elite, resigned all his posts, including his role as host of a popular radio programme, and is now an outcast. He has made no public comment and prosecutors have opened an inquiry.
Recent tell-all accounts, which in three cases have become bestselling books, have toppled celebrities of the intellectual and artsy left, prompted criminal inquiries and triggered a political resignation. Kouchner’s allegations, deemed to constitute incest as well as a paedophile crime in French law, have prompted an outpouring on social media by thousands of people under the #MeTooInceste hashtag. The torrent of trauma from victims of abuse by family members contrasts with the widespread distaste over “Anglo-Saxon” puritanism that greeted the American Me Too trend in France two years ago.
Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron have stepped into the storm. The president, who was born in 1977, has promised to change the law on incest and sex with minors (at present, a child is only deemed to be the victim of rape if the act is the consequence of “violence, threat, constraint or surprise” and the burden is on the victim to show there was no consent). They have each praised the women and men who have unburdened themselves after decades of silence.
The public shaming of 1980s abusers began in 2016 when Flavie Flament, a television and radio presenter, published La Consolation, a book recounting her rape as a 13-year-old by David Hamilton, the British photographer. Hamilton, 83, who was famous for gauzy erotic portraits of teenage girls, denied the claims as well as those of three other women. Two weeks later, he took his life in his Paris flat.
The great “libération de la parole” among the Paris elite got under way a year ago when Vanessa Springora, 48, the head of the publishing house Éditions Julliard, recounted in searing detail how she was groomed as a young teenager in the 1980s by Gabriel Matzneff, a fashionable novelist who was in his early fifties at the time. Her bestseller, Le Consentement (Consent) served as a challenge to the tolerance that the high Paris thinking classes had long applied to criminal sexual behaviour in their midst.
What is striking is the complicity that parents could show towards their children’s predators. Kouchner, whose father was founder of the Médecins Sans Frontières charity and a heavyweight in the humanitarian world, describes the idyllic summers at her mother and stepfather’s villa at Sanary on the Mediterranean coast.
Sex was in constant talk and there were risqué games in those hedonistic times, Kouchner writes. Duhamel and her mother, Évelyne Pisier, a feminist law lecturer who had once had a long affair with Fidel Castro, hid little from the children, who saw the adults frolicking naked at the pool. “At Sanary, certain parents and children kissed on the lips. My stepfather hit on the wives of his chums’ mates,” she writes. “The chums went for the nannies. The young men were given to the older women.”
Her mother, who once told her teenage daughter that “f***ing is our freedom”, took Duhamel’s side when she told her of her brother’s alleged abuse at his stepfather’s hands in 2010. Pisier’s film star sister Marie-France Pisier, however, tried to expose him then by spreading word among the Left Bank power set. A year later Marie-France, a muse of François Truffaut, the 1960s nouvelle vague film director, drowned in her Mediterranean swimming pool in a presumed suicide.
Berry’s daughter describes a similar atmosphere of decadence at weekends in her father’s home in 1980s Paris. Springora writes of her mother’s acquiescence and hint of pride in her seduction by Matzneff, a writer who won prizes with his books in praise of sex with under-age girls and boys.
If you were not around Paris at the time these tales expose just how blasé France had become to sexual liberty of the worst kind. If you were there, as I was, it is hard to justify the attitudes of the era. In 1984, for example, Serge Gainsbourg, the louche songsmith beloved of the Left Bank, reached No 2 in the pop charts with Lemon Incest. The hit was a duet with Charlotte, his then 13-year-old daughter with Jane Birkin, sung to the tune of Chopin’s Tristesse Étude. “Naive like a painting by Henri Rousseau/ Your kisses are so sweet,” the father sang. We thought Gainsbourg was being his usual naughty self, but found the song charming.
It now seems almost unbelievable to recall the noisy campaign to legalise sex with children from 13 upwards that was supported by feminists and philosophers alike. Luminaries put their names to petitions and articles in Le Monde and Libération in favour of what they depicted as a noble cause. Signatories of a 1977 petition included Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir and Jacques Derrida. There were also signatories who are still prominent, including Bernard Kouchner, now 81. Also there was Jack Lang, now 81, a former Socialist Party culture minister and present head of the Institut du Monde Arabe. Lang disowned his past views last week. “It was unacceptable,” he said. “It was after 1968 and we were carried along by a libertarian wave.”
Others have fallen foul of the stock-taking over the baby boomer excesses. Élisabeth Guigou, a friend of the Duhamels and a former Socialist Party justice minister, resigned from her new post as chairwoman of a state commission on incest. Although a friend of the Duhamels, she said she had known nothing about his alleged abuse of Camille Kouchner’s brother. Antoine Kouchner, who is now a Paris university astrophysics professor, approved of his sister’s book and last month pressed charges against their stepfather, although the statute of limitations renders his alleged acts exempt from prosecution.
While veterans of the era are on the defensive, not all have disowned the past. Alain Finkielkraut, 71, a celebrity philosopher and essayist, was sacked from his commentator’s slot at LCI news television for taking Duhamel’s side and suggesting that the teenage stepson may have been complicit. “Was there consent? How old was he when it started? Could there have been a form of reciprocity?” Finkielkraut wondered.
His words prompted outrage. Adrien Taquet, the minister for children and the family, tweeted: “In what world are you living? Are you really talking about consent between an adolescent and a member of his family?”
Some baby boomer thinkers are confronting their era’s dark side. Luc Ferry, 70, a conservative philosopher who served as President Chirac’s education minister two decades ago, is blaming his contemporaries. “People had forgotten that 1968 thinking promoted paedophilia,” he wrote in Le Figaro. “Every adult had the right, even the duty, they argued, to awaken the sexuality that the bourgeoisie was hiding.”
Unlike others who claim to have known nothing, Ferry said that had been aware for some time of the incest claim by Duhamel’s stepdaughter. Also in the know was Frédéric Mion, the director of Sciences Po, who has acknowledged failing to take action and has come under pressure to resign.
The flood of allegations and the attendant disgrace when they involve public figures are largely seen as healthy. One in ten people in France has been victim of incest, according to a survey.
Argument is raging over the promised reforms. Some MPs want an end to the statute of limitations for child sex crimes. This was extended in 2018 from 20 to 30 years from the plaintiff’s 18th birthday.
The focus is on purging an archaic notion of consent. A Paris region court recently reduced a charge against a 28-year-old man on the grounds that an 11-year-old girl had agreed to sex.
A bill soon to come before parliament will criminalise all sexual relations with a minor under 13 years. The governing party, La République en Marche, now aims to raise that to 15, which is the French age of sexual consent. Some experts are warning against excess, pointing out that many teenagers are sexually active from 13 or 14 and that a blanket law could land teenage boys in the dock for paedophile rape. A law defining an age difference between alleged victim and abuser would be better, they say. In Britain it is an offence for anyone to have any sexual activity with a person under the age of 16, but prosecutions are rare when there is little difference in age.
The French senate is also aiming to create a separate crime of incest, which at present is only an aggravating factor in the offence of sex with a minor under 15.
Addressing the victims of incest and child sex abuse after the Duhamel scandal erupted, President Macron said that the national awakening meant that shame had changed sides. “The silence erected by criminals and cowardice has shattered . . . thanks to the courage of a sister who could no longer keep quiet,” he said. “These words, these cries, nobody can ignore them any longer. I just want to tell you: we are here. We are listening to you. We believe you. And you will never be alone again.”