PARIS — A sex scandal is again shaking up politics and media in France. Denis Baupin, a a Green Party member and vice president of the National Assembly, who also happens to be husband to the current housing minister, is being investigated after accusations that he harassed many women, including colleagues and elected officials, with some of these incidents apparently dating as far back as 15 years ago. [Baupin denies any wrongdoing, and has sued the French media outlets that first reported them on Monday]
We can only hope that these revelations will also shake up French society, if we want such behavior to end. The ghost of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has come back to haunt our political life. It's been five years since a New York hotel housekeeper, Nafissatou Diallo, accused the former International Monetary Fund head of sexually assaulting her. [The criminal case was later dismissed, while a civil suit was quietly settled.] A trial linked to the Carlton Hotel prostitutes scandal [in which Strauss-Kahn was acquitted of aggravated pimping charges] concluded just over a year ago.
In the latter case, France 24 journalist Tony Todd wrote in his report at the time of the trial that "a calm, confident and smiling Dominique Strauss-Kahn left the court, the sensationalist revelations on his sexual mores having failed to undermine his line of defense. He told the court he had always assumed they consented — to often brutal sex — 'because of who I am'."
"Because of who I am..." These words tell the whole story. They explain the feeling of absolute power that comes with being in politics, and the mechanisms of ascendency it creates in male-female relationships. It doesn't exclude, of course, the talent, intelligence and attraction that power can involve. But in that case, those who take advantage of other people's weaknesses should be considered twice as much responsible for their actions.
It's stunning to see how women's bodies remain a strong object of desire for our male representatives. This is particularly striking in France, where gender equality is a principle enshrined in the Constitution, where equal pay is guaranteed by law, and where laws established gender parity in politics 15 years ago — legislation that has no real equivalent in Europe.
So, let's ask ourselves the hard question. Could such a thing have happened in a company, or inside the civil services? Probably, but it couldn't have gone on for that long, nor could it have reached the scale it did. This scandal perfectly sums up the insidious nature of a political world in which people rub shoulders with each other for years, and that fosters a sickening dependency.
And all of this takes place against a backdrop of growing disdain for ideas and programs, which has had two consequences: The political sphere is, without a doubt, the least civilized in our society, marred by intimidation, threats, and giving in to the "might is right" rule. The appalling byproduct of all this is that lawmakers are filled with an unparalleled feeling of impunity.
Protesting a DSK appearance at the Cambridge Union Society — Photo: Devon Buchanan
It's then imperative that we do more if we want to go beyond pointing a finger at scapegoats, and actually change the system and its perversity. French politics is going off course. Isn't it time for us citizens to band together and acknowledge that we lost interest in how our democracy functions a long time ago?
It's about time society started applying some control on its elected officials, and it's about time that these officials learned that their sexual behavior will be under intense scrutiny. The fact that political machinations take place behind closed doors fuels impunity and violence. Internal democracy within political parties will function properly only if democratic life in France improves.
Thankfully, we're now on the edge of a real breakthrough on these issues. But we have to question a political tradition in which a leader does not account for nor justify how he exerts different kinds of power, be it sexual, financial, or, simply, decision-making.
For me, a member of France's Green Party, it's truly revolting to live through this situation, and watch it from inside a party that has always strived for parity in politics, and which has embraced non-violence and feminism as its core values. Like other political parties, the gap between our principles and the way we function is now exposed. Unfortunately, how we respond to these issues, even the most pressing and important ones, still depends on the moment, the context and political calculations.
We have to break away from this belief that it's never the right time to talk about certain things. It's especially important to do so in our party, which asks itself a lot more questions than others on how to link our values to responsibilities, on how to have more checks and balances, and on how to protect whistleblowers.
All political parties, even ours, have slowly become lawless areas, and in this situation, women are left to fend for themselves. The paradox lies in the fact that this development has sped up in spite of the growing number of women in politics. This has probably taken place because of no real internal system to respect gender parity and not realizing that our collective political subconscious is far from a balanced representation.
How can we get rid off this entrenched system of droit de seigneur in politics? How can we make sure our officials reflect an ideal French society: diverse, intergenerational, cosmopolitan and respectful?
The judiciary has to play its part, but, in the long run, we'll have to assess whether French political life can one day give birth to a genuine respect toward women in politics and elsewhere.
* Lucile Schmid is a member of France's Green Party (Europe Ecology - The Greens)