A defamation lawsuit brought by a former French member of parliament against six women who accused him of sexual harassment and four journalists who reported the allegations has opened in what is seen as a further backlash against the #MeToo movement in France.
Denis Baupin, the former vice-president of France’s Assemblée National and a prominent MP for the Green party, resigned in May 2016 after denying the allegations.
The investigative website Mediapart and the radio station France Inter published stories from 14 women who alleged Baupin had groped and harassed them over a number of years.
Most of the women were also members of the Green party, whose leader was then Baupin’s wife, Emmanuelle Cosse; four of them filed criminal complaints for sexual harassment.
A nine-month investigation, during which police interviewed 50 people, ended with prosecutors announcing there would be no charges as the three-year statute of limitations had expired. In a statement, the prosecutors said the women had given “measured, constant statements”.
The scandal broke 18 months before the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual assault by multiple women, which sparked an international campaign calling powerful men to account for their behaviour.
Following the rise of #MeToo, a group of high-profile women, including the French actor Catherine Deneuve, wrote an open letter complaining the movement was a “witch-hunt” and infringed men’s “right to bother” women.
Baupin was not in court when the hearing opened on Monday.
His lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat said: “My client has said all he has to say to investigators. He was never [legally] pursued, he has been destroyed by this affair. We are attacking the media who lacked any kind of caution and who published false information with contempt for the presumption of innocence.”
Edwy Plenel, Mediapart’s director, said it was the first #MeToo era trial in France.
“We totally respected the right of the press. Denis Baupin and his lawyer have tried to suppress the truth. Today, he is pursuing the victims, all these women … instead of looking at himself.”
Harvey Weinstein: judge dismisses Ashley Judd’s sex harassment claim against disgraced Hollywood producer
Annie Lahmer, a Green party official who serves on the Île-de-France regional council, claimed Baupin chased her around an office desk, and when she remonstrated with him told her she would not have a career in the Green party.
Isabelle Attard, also a former Green party MP, alleged Baupin bombarded her with dozens of inappropriate text messages between 2012 and 2013.
Watch #MeToo in China: A journalist speaks out against sexual harassment
Sandrine Rousseau, a former Green party spokeswoman, who accused Baupin of grabbing her breast at a 2011 meeting, told Associated Press: “Will justice send the message that women must remain silent? It’s an important message; a message saying that women can speak out or not.”
Under French law, those being sued for defamation must prove they acted in good faith or told the truth. Journalists are required to also show they had a legitimate goal in running the story, were careful and balanced in their reports and were not motivated by personal animosity.
The French government has since increased the statute of limitations for sexual harassment claims from three to six years. The accused face a maximum fine of €45,000 euros (US$51,425).