In 2011, when Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested in a Manhattan hotel on rape charges, Lénaïg Bredoux, a Paris-based reporter, watched the reporting in dismay. At the time, the French media largely devoted itself to criticizing the American judicial system instead of investigating allegations that had dogged Strauss-Kahn for years. Moved to action, she contacted the French journalist Tristane Banon, who, in 2007, publicly accused him of sexually assaulting her in 2003 and that is how Bredoux uncovered a culture of silence inside the French Socialist Party.
Since then, Bredoux, who is now the chief political correspondent for the independent news organization Mediapart, has covered sexual misconduct allegations against politicians and other prominent figures, including the director and screenwriter Luc Besson. (Besson, who has been accused of sexual assault or harassment by nine women, has denied the allegations.) Bredoux has thus become the French equivalent of The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow for her work uncovering #MeToo offenders—except that in the US, alongside Farrow, there are legions of women journalists who have pursued stories about sexual harassment and men’s abuse of their professional status and power, whereas, in France, Bredoux is almost a unique figure.
Last month, Bredoux was forced to defend the accuracy of her reporting in court. In 2016, she wrote a series of stories describing several women politicians’ accounts of being sexually harassed or sexually assaulted by the then deputy speaker of the National Assembly, Denis Baupin. The politician denied the allegations, which ranged from lewd text messages to groping, but nonetheless resigned from his position. He then filed a defamation lawsuit, which led to the prosecution of six accusers and two news outlets, Mediapart and the radio station France Inter.
On the stand in a Paris courtroom, the six accusers each in turn explained how they were afraid to report Baupin’s behavior because they thought it would hurt their careers. Cécile Duflot, a prominent member of the Green Party (known in French as Europe Écologie Les Verts), shed tears as she related how she had been assaulted by Baupin years earlier but had never reported it. She had even advised another woman not to report her harassment by another man, she confessed, because she felt she should protect the party concerned.
The trial has split French society along now-familiar lines, as one side defended sexual liberty and the other called for the condemnation of behavior that has harmed so many women and their careers. On the final day of the hearings, Bredoux and her colleagues wept as Baupin’s accusers told the judge that they had submitted their lives to the glare of the media because they hoped, finally, to be believed. “We must remain vigilant,” Geneviève Zdrojewski, a retired civil servant who had worked as an aide to a senior political leader, said. “There is always a risk of going backwards. It’s the media’s role to protect us.”
In her closing arguments, the prosecutor pleaded for the acquittal of the journalists and the six women. She believed that the reporting was thorough and that the women “sincerely related what they have subjectively experienced.” A verdict will be delivered in a few weeks. In the meantime, it is clear that something has changed in France. The media no longer dismisses the words of women who speak out. It also seems that the country is experiencing a delayed, but very necessary, national reckoning with the prevalence of sexual assault and sexual harassment.
As the trial ended, Bredoux and I met for coffee to discuss her work, her feelings about having to defend it in court, and what motivates her to investigate powerful men accused of sexual misconduct. The following interview was translated from French and edited for concision.
Aida Alami: What did you think of the #MeToo movement ?
Lénaïg Bredoux: I thought it was wonderful. When we first ran the Denis Baupin investigation, I received dozens and dozens of messages. Family members and friends started telling me about how they were themselves victims of sexual violence. For a long time, sexual violence was considered a private matter, and the choice of the expression “#MeToo” was extremely appropriate. During many of my investigations, one of the first things a woman says to me is “me, too.”
How do you evaluate the influence of #MeToo on France?
It is enormous. The balance of power has changed. People can no longer minimize these issues. During the Baupin trial, the effect was evident. There are words that can’t be used anymore. His defense said that he was an obnoxious seducer but that he wasn’t violent. But the media have covered the trial in ways that I didn’t expect. For instance, text messages by the women who accused him were presented in court. The women answer his texts, or they don’t rebuff him, or even sometimes go along, and they explain that they didn’t know how to get out of a bad situation—the media believed them.
Many speak of the “séduction à la française,” by which they mean a traditionally accepting attitude toward sexual libertinism and male prerogatives? How do you respond that?
On Monday, Denis Baupin’s lawyer called me the “chief of a tribe of Mormons.” He was clearly referring to the American moral order and to Puritanism. Those who want to reduce this trial to differences between Puritans and free-thinkers are mistaken. The defense claimed to be defending a certain way of life. This is something we have heard for decades; it’s completely outmoded.
These arguments are the last remnants of an old world, a world that is disappearing. It’s a pretty gloomy conception of seduction and relationships. Women describe gestures—like the too-firm pressure of a hand on the back when men greet them—that can make one uneasy. We have all experienced that. I do think that there are still problems, but a counter-narrative has emerged.
What about last year’s Le Monde opinion piece by Catherine Deneuve and others defending “a freedom to bother, indispensable to sexual freedom”?
Again, it’s a vision from the past. It misunderstands reality and what’s happening. To think a liaison happens through inequality and domination depresses me. That kind of rhetoric has dramatic effects on victims because it makes them question their suffering.
We must discuss what qualifies as consent and place that at the heart of the conversation. How do we manage to have relationships free from male domination? It’s not simple. We must discuss how women internalize this domination. We can discuss if legal action is the solution or if we need to find measures to prevent these things from happening in the first place.
What is dangerous is to say that women must be strong and reject harassers. That minimizes people’s pain.
How did you start working on stories about sexual violence?
I have been working at Mediapart for eight years as a political journalist. I started writing about sexism [in 2010] and soon after that about sexual violence. Because when you’re a political journalist in France, and maybe everywhere else, you’re confronted with sexism as a journalist and it’s also experienced by female politicians. It only takes a five-minute conversation with colleagues, activists, or elected representatives, before they start talking to you about the sexism they face, how it affects them, and ultimately the reasons why women participate less than men in politics. And sometimes, eventually, they speak of more serious cases involving sexual violence.
In April 2011, I wrote an article about an elected socialist politician convicted of sexual violence and the effect on his political party. [Jacques Mahéas, a former Socialist Party member of the French Senate, was found guilty of sexual violence against an employee six years earlier.] At the time, we weren’t yet conducting our own investigations unless there was a current lawsuit. What struck me most is that absolutely nobody even questioned whether he should be punished within the party. Even feminists at the time said that they were against double jeopardy—they said, “If someone stole a scooter, we wouldn’t exclude them from the party.” And I told myself, “Either I am an atrocious masked vigilante or they’re completely mistaken.” And I think I was right.
Women at the trial this week mentioned Tristane Banon, the woman who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of sexual assault in 2007.
Yes, the women said, “Before us, the only person who spoke out was Tristane Banon, and we see what happened to her.” It was a deterrent. Tristane Banon revealed the assault on television, and back then, no journalist followed up and investigated what had happened to her. Her mother, who was a socialist elected with DSK, had informed her party, and the future French president, François Hollande. We looked into who knew, and when.
I covered the DSK trial in 2011 and it was amazing to see the difference in coverage between the US and France. What was your perception at the time?
There was a real problem. A French problem. Instead of discussing the root of the problem, some in the French media were focused on the American judicial system, on debating moral order in the United States, the Puritanism of Anglo-Saxons, some even had conspiracy theories. This contributes to making sexual violence invisible.
Yet society rebelled against the elites: most people in France believed that DSK should not hold political office in the country ever again, while part of the elite thought it was okay, that he could still be invited to conferences, as if nothing had happened. Society at large was moving faster than the elites, especially privileged white men.
You wrote about systemic sexism in politics for The Guardian in 2015, after signing an opinion piece in the French newspaper Libération with other female journalists. What was the reaction?
It encouraged more women to talk and made my investigations easier. I haven’t been the target of the most serious acts of sexism. It was easier for me to be vocal about the fact that it needed to stop because I was already writing about these issues—that certain remarks, like commenting on how I look, or complimenting me, late-night text messages, were not okay; even mundane remarks that differentiated me from male journalists were not acceptable to me. There is a sexist climate that allows these things to happen.
How did you uncover the allegations against Denis Baupin?
The first alerts I got on Baupin were off-the-record. They weren’t from people who experienced anything themselves but they shared with me what they’d heard about his reputation. I understood that it was pretty bad, not just sexism but something more. A female politician had lunch with the editor in chief of Mediapart, Edwy Plenel, and she and a colleague said that she was getting tons of texts messages from Baupin.
So I started calling some of my sources. Everyone was cautious. I was covering the Élysée [the presidential palace] and investigating Baupin on the side. His wife, Emmanuelle Cosse, was a minister in the government at the time.
And then, on March 8, 2016, on International Women’s Day, male politicians, including Baupin himself, wore lipstick in a photo with other members of parliament. It provoked a lot of reaction among women in Baupin’s party; one later told us that she threw up when she saw the photo on Facebook. Many others said that they were revolted by the photo.
People alerted my colleague Cyril Graziani, at France Inter, who told me, “We must investigate. This is crazy”—a pretty exceptional reaction because he’s never worked on these topics, but he talked about it with women friends who are feminists and they told him he must investigate.
What do you think about how Americans think of sexual harassment?
I don’t share the view some French have of the United States, that theirs is a puritanical morality. After all, the American president bragged about grabbing women by their genitals and still got elected. So it seems that American morality is also double-edged.
French law has a pretty narrow definition of what sexual harassment is. It is very hard to prove. That seems easier in the United States. I do think it protects many women. In companies in the United States, factory workers have denounced sexual harassment. I am not exactly sure what tools they can use here to do the same thing.
How did you feel about being prosecuted for defamation?
American law protects press freedom a lot more than French law does. The systems are very different. I don’t have a problem with defending my work before the court, but my sources also had to hire a lawyer, pay a lawyer, go through a week-long trial. This illustrates the huge responsibility we have as journalists. It can also deter people from speaking to journalists in the future.
Sources in France aren’t protected enough. I work for a newspaper where the police showed up just this week to do a search. During the Gilets Jaunes protests, police officers attacked and wounded journalists. It says something about the state in which find ourselves. When I investigated Luc Besson, with my colleague Marine Turchi, we interviewed women who didn’t want their names used, who lived in the United States, and we asked them for signed testimonies in case we were sued for defamation—and it was very hard for them to understand. As if our methods were prehistoric.
There were many emotional moments during this trial.
I am overwhelmed by this trial. I feel that there will be a before and an after for me as a journalist, in terms of the implications, ethics, and complexity of these kinds of stories. All the suffering and difficulties it took for these women to talk about violence: one person said that it wasn’t his first time doing this, that he had testified against his own father who raped his sister, with everything public and in the media. It all really shakes me. Usually, when you’re writing, you have some sort of distance. But this time, I was also a part of what was happening. I feel like I am going through a storm and I hope I can write about it one day. I am exhausted.