Women's Rights Groups Protest French Ministers' Appointments

One of French President Emmanuel Macron’s new government ministers has been accused of rape. Another is a lawyer who ridiculed the #MeToo movement and defended a top official accused of rape.

Women’s rights groups are angry and confused, and on Tuesday staged two protests in Paris over the appointments they see as burying Macron’s promises to make equality between women and men the “Great Cause” of his five-year term.

“It’s a slap in the face,” said Pauline Baron of feminist group NousToutes, which campaigns against sexual violence. “We are once again celebrating people who are accused of rape or say things that negate the voice of victims. It stifles victims and feeds sexual violence and rape culture.”

The French government said it remains committed to equality and defended the new ministers, stressing the presumption of innocence.

The new interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, is under preliminary investigation over a rape accusation that he firmly denies. Macron’s office said the probe was “not an obstacle” to Darmanin’s appointment to a job that puts him in charge of police and other law enforcement bodies.

The recently reopened investigation is based on a 2017 legal complaint by a woman who alleged that Darmanin raped her when she sought legal help from him in 2009. Darmanin, the highest-ranking French official accused of sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era, says the encounter was consensual. He sued the woman for slander.

Women's rights activists also object to the appointment of provocative lawyer Eric Dupond-Moretti as justice minister. Among his clients have been a former French government member accused of rape and sexual assault, as well as suspected terrorists and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

As the #MeToo movement encouraged women around the world to speak out about past acts of sexual misconduct committed by powerful men, Dupond-Moretti criticized the “crazy" women who “crucify” men on social media. He ridiculed a woman who returned to a man she said raped her, and dismissed the world’s first law against catcalls and other street harassment, passed in France in 2018, as a “joke.”

In a reshuffling of the French government on Monday, Macron replaced the high-profile women’s rights minister behind that law, Marlene Schiappa. She will now work under Darmanin in a new role focusing on citizenship.

The #MeToo movement had a mixed reception in France, where many celebrate the art of seduction and resented what they saw as American political correctness encroaching on French society. French feminists, who have long sought to battle women’s oppression in a macho culture, welcomed the movement as a breakthrough that allowed victims to speak out at last - though no powerful French figures lost their jobs as a result.

At Tuesday’s first protest, near the president’s Elysee Palace and the Interior Ministry, about 20 mostly masked demonstrators waved sparklers, raised their fists and chanted for the resignations of the new interior and justice ministers. A group of male police officers pushed them back.

Several dozen protesters gathered later in front of the columned Madeleine Church near the Justice Ministry for a symbolic “burial” of Macron’s promises to fight sexism and sexist violence.

“No rapist in the Interior Ministry, no accomplice in the Justice Ministry!” the activists shouted.

They described age-old challenges confronting women who are raped or sexually abused: Most are afraid to report what happened out of fear of their attacker or of being stigmatized. Some women who waited years to speak out were accused of opportunism. Only a small minority of cases reported to police reach trial, and much fewer result in convictions.

The government appointments are “a very bad message to all women,” said protester Karma Duquesne from Les Colleuses, a group that plastered the names and portraits of women killed by their partners around France and prompted Macron to order new measures against domestic violence.

After the new Cabinet’s first meeting Tuesday, government spokesman Gabriel Attal defended Macron’s staffing choices.

“We can’t on the one side make the presumption of innocence sacred ... and (on the other) consider that there are people who, by the function they occupy, cannot benefit from the presumption of innocence,” Attal said.

Early in his presidency, Macron replaced ministers who were targeted by corruption investigations. Responding to the protests over the new ministers, Attal said: “There are investigations, they are ongoing, and that’s normal, we’re in a state of law. We cannot take it a step farther and say that because there are investigations, it will be impossible to serve in a government.”