A deputy speaker of France’s parliament resigned on Monday after becoming the latest French politician to face sexual harassment allegations, although he vehemently denies the claims.
Denis Baupin, a former member of the ecologist EELV party who is married to Housing Minister Emmanuelle Cosse, plans to sue the women for defamation, his lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat said.
The allegations are “mendacious, defamatory and baseless”, Pierrat said in a statement.
“Sexual harassment and even more so sexual aggression are totally foreign” to the 53-year-old Baupin, one of parliament’s six deputy speakers, the lawyer added.
Baupin said in an email to parliament speaker Claude Bartolone seen by AFP that he was stepping down from the position he has held for nearly four years in order to “best prepare my defence”.
The scandal adds to a series of sexual allegations against French politicians after the spectacular fall from grace in May 2011 of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
The latest high-profile case involved Finance Minister Michel Sapin, accused in a book published in April of sexually harassing a journalist, an allegation he brushed off as “inexact and slanderous”.
The four EELV party members made the allegations against Baupin to French media.
EELV spokeswoman Sandrine Rousseau told the Mediapart website and France Inter radio that Baupin made an aggressive pass at her in October 2011 during a party meeting.
“At one point I wanted to take a break,” she said.
“Denis Baupin appeared in the corridor outside… He pinned me against the wall with his chest and tried to kiss me. I pushed him away vigorously.”
The encounter made Rousseau “very uneasy”, she said.
“I immediately thought that it was absolutely not normal that this should happen to me. But I thought of it as sexual aggression much later,” she said.
– ‘People kept quiet’ –
Elen Debost, deputy mayor of the central city of Le Mans, told AFP that Baupin had sent her sexually explicit text messages for several months in 2011.
She said the messages began after she indicated her support for his run for parliament.
“A first text message followed. And it lasted for several months, messages of a sexual nature, about his fantasies, his desires, how he saw me, how much he wanted me,” she said.
Debost did not speak out at first, but when she and Rousseau were approached by Mediapart and France Inter, they “realised the scale of the problem, how long it had lasted, the number of women were involved, the number of people who knew”.
The news outlets also spoke to Isabelle Attard, a former EELV deputy, who said Baupin used to subject her to “almost daily harassment with provocative, salacious text messages” between June 2012 and the end of 2013, when she left the party.
Debost said “a lot of people kept quiet so as not to harm his campaign”.
Annie Lahmer, an EELV member of the Paris regional government, also accused Baupin of sexual impropriety, saying the incidents dated back more than 15 years.
Following Baupin’s resignation, a coalition of 500 activists published a call in France’s left-leaning Liberation daily for an “end to impunity” for abusers.
“The difficulty that women have speaking about this type of violence is general, but without a doubt it’s amplified in the arena of politics where, more than anywhere else, they can never appear weak, and must instead adopt the posture of being the opposite of a victim,” wrote the group “Levons l’omerta”, whose name is a call to “break the code of silence”.
“The behaviour of men must change, women cannot be left to adapt, for things to get moving and finally put an end to impunity, so that blame is not shifted. We have to speak out.”
The group thanked the women “who had the courage to break the silence”.
French law has a statute of limitations of three years in cases of sexual harassment or aggression, except when the alleged victim is a minor, when it is longer.
Baupin left the EELV party last month over “strategic disagreements” ahead of elections next year.
The sexual assault case against Strauss-Kahn, who had been tipped for the French presidency in 2012, involved a New York hotel maid and was settled in a civil suit.