It all started with one photo posted on Twitter in March 2016.
Eight male French MPs, all senior leaders of their respective parties, put on red lipstick to condemn sexual violence against women. #MeToo wasn’t a thing just yet.
#mettezdurouge contre les violences faites aux femmes. Des députés s'engagent #8mars https://t.co/nN6PtOl22P pic.twitter.com/XGoVOKnzaY
— Denis_Baupin (@Denis_Baupin) March 8, 2016
Within hours of the photo being released, several women accused a senior green party MP, Denis Baupin (second from the left in the photo), of sexual misconduct. They couldn’t bear to see the discrepancy between public communication and private reality. He withdrew from public life a month later.
What Baupin and his accusers didn’t know at the time was that these revelations would show just how mismanaged sexual violence cases were in parties across the political spectrum and, fast forwarding to now, how urgently policy changes are needed.
We need policy we don’t know how to implement
Sexual harassment and predatory behaviour are tools for men to ascertain (and abuse) their power.
Yet, five years after the #MeToo movement was first revealed, hardly anything has changed in France. Just before the summer, Damien Abad, then minister for solidarity, was accused of rape by several women. His mandate was discontinued in July, after only a couple of months and despite his denials.
The latest sexual abuse scandals that have rocked French politics, both within Emmanuel Macron’s government and left-wing opposition parties, have shown just how crucial a policy response is – and how clueless we are about actually implementing it.
Too often, women in political parties do not have the necessary space to speak out about their traumas or to warn others of male misconduct.
Creating dedicated safe spaces (protection “units,” the French dubbed them) within political parties is an excellent first step. Their statutes and complete independence from political interference must be ensured – with clear channels to raise serious issues to party seniors and, when necessary, the police.
However, this isn’t enough.
Green Party leader Julien Bayou resigned after it was revealed his ex-partner had accused him of psychological violence, a criminal offence in France and an ex officio offence in many other EU states, although she did not file a criminal complaint.
Green MP Sandrine Rousseau revealed the accusations on TV after she said she had met the woman who was very depressed and had tried to commit suicide shortly after.
Bayou in turn accused his ex of harbouring resentment against him, and while he admitted it was a “painful and difficult breakup”, he denied any abuse.
Turning to the media out of anger and exhaustion against a patriarchal system when women feel no other institution is on their side is more than understandable.
But it also shows a big weakness in the system where women feel they cannot trust the police or the judicial system. These systems need to be reinforced to bolster ex officio offences, ensure prosecutions, and follow through with convictions when someone is found guilty.
Training on seeing and calling out sexual misconduct and abuse amongst colleagues and peers is also badly needed across the board.
MPs and their advisors, political leaders and mere sympathisers must undergo such training, and have them repeated – a one-off isn’t enough. This is even more crucial since power plays and personality cults within political parties artificially raise the threshold after which it is ‘ok’ to speak out.
Protection “hubs” must be reinforced to ensure both independence and fair access for victims to psychological and legal support. Where such hubs don’t exist, an independent third-party institution that handles sexual violence complaints must be created.
The French High Commission for Equality suggested giving this new institution investigative powers over new parliamentarians’ past.
And here is when money comes in: The issue of sexual violence is underfunded, and French feminists’ plea for €1 billion in funding for sexual violence services is the bare minimum. These services also need more staff and higher wages to help increase reach.
Money must also flow into the justice system to have the necessary means, such as dedicated courts or free psychological support, to make women trust that they can file a complaint and be taken seriously by the system.
But most importantly, more so than any hub, budget, or reform, we need to eradicate the toxic culture that sees women as sexual objects or lesser beings that can be intimidated and denigrated. Furthermore, these men need to know there will be consequences for their actions, including criminal cases and complete ostracisation from the political sphere, for life.
This is a matter of political integrity and, more often than we think, life or death. We owe it to the #metoo movement.
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Views are the author’s.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]