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Scandals put a spotlight on France's hidden sexism, privacy laws

By Catherine Clifford and Saskya Vandoorne, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Strauss-Kahn affair and the Tron incident have helped raise awareness
  • Former Education Minister Luc Ferry says he knows of an official who abused children
  • "I hope this will change things," a former minister's mistress says
  • Roselyne Bachelot: "How could I not rejoice the end of impunity?"

Paris (CNN) -- Fresh political sex scandals, following closely on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, have France gripped by a debate on the nation's hidden culture of sexism and how its tough privacy laws, which prevent journalists from exposing sexual misbehavior, help perpetuate it.

In the latest development, former French Education Minister Luc Ferry was talking to police as a witness Friday at the department for the protection of minors in Paris after suggesting on national television that a former government minister is known to have abused children in Marrakech, Morocco.

The comments arose during a discussion on whether former International Monetary Fund head Strauss-Kahn's supposedly well-known sexual impulsiveness had been kept quiet because it was seen as a private matter.

"All of us here probably know who I'm talking about," Ferry told the panel on the daily French political show "Le Grand Journal."

Asked if he had any proof, he said, "Of course not. But I have testimony from Cabinet members at the highest level, state authorities at the highest level."

He went on to say he had been informed "particularly by the prime minister."

Ferry refused to name the former minister because of the privacy laws, saying, "If I let his name out now, it's me who will be charged and doubtlessly convicted, even if I know that the story is true."

Since the comments were made Tuesday evening, rumors have been spreading about who Ferry was talking about, with the names of several high-profile politicians being mentioned.

Ferry's comments also followed the resignation Sunday of former French Secretary of Public Affairs Georges Tron after two female colleagues accused him of sexually assaulting them while giving them foot massages. The two women told French press that the Strauss-Kahn case had inspired them to come forward.

One of the women, identified only as Eloise, told French reporters, "We will not withdraw our complaint. I am determined to see it through regardless of unpleasant things that could be spread about me. "

The accumulation of affairs has brought out a flurry of personal testimony in France from highly placed women politicians and officials who now feel empowered to speak out on the issue of sexual harassment by men in politics.

Christine Deviers-Joncour, mistress of former French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, told CNN, "In France we don't talk about that. It never happened. I have no example. Up until now it was very difficult.

"Imagine a woman who is sexually pursued by a politician, what can she do? Go to the justice and complain? Immediately they will laugh at her. So I hope this will change things."

Nicole Guedj, a member of the Council of State, told CNN: "Clearly it's an issue. I started my career quite a long time ago and throughout its course I was faced with sexist behavior, but I was lucky enough to overcome those difficulties."

Aurelie Filipetti, Socialist Party spokeswoman, told the French media: "In France, 80% of the political sphere is dominated by men and male political journalists. So yes, we suffer and you harden yourself to it. You have to when you hear 15 sexist jokes in a row. It is sexual harassment disguised as humor. Some can't come to work wearing a skirt."

Similarly Roselyne Bachelot, current Minister of Solidarities and Social Cohesion said: "Recently something big has been taking place: a real omerta is being lifted, reinforced by a judicial system that protects privacy. I think politicians have understood that respecting privacy has its limits now.

"Is this a good thing? Yes, of course. How could I not rejoice the end of impunity?"