Five years after the #MeToo hashtag went viral, an abuse scandal that led to the resignation of leftist Green politician Julien Bayou has left some feminists wondering if the campaign has gone too far in France.
Bayou, the 42-year-old leader of France’s pro-feminist EELV green party, is at the centre of the latest maelstrom. The EELV leader resigned in late September after being accused by a rival lawmaker from his party of behaviour verging on mental abuse.
The full facts of the situation remain unclear – no internal party or police inquiry has been completed – but Bayou’s ex-partner was said to have suffered from depression after the end of their relationship in November 2021.
That raised questions about whether he is in some way liable for her mental distress – no physical or sexual abuse was alleged – as well as his right to privacy.
“It was a very painful break-up with suffering on both sides,” Bayou told Le Monde newspaper in an interview on Tuesday in which he denied any criminal behaviour or “psychological violence”.
“I am not responsible for the suffering – which is real – of my ex-partner,” he said.
Bayou claimed he was the victim of modern-day McCarthyism, a reference to US efforts in the 1950s to root out communists that led to people losing their jobs over mere accusations.
“Feminism, yes – obviously, always. McCarthyism is something else,” said Bayou, a former grassroots social activist.
‘Accusations without corroboration’
Five years ago, the #MeToo campaign against sexual violence was sparked when US actress Alyssa Milano took to Twitter to urge victims of sexual harassment and assault to share their stories on social media.
The movement has since spread across the globe and has largely succeeded in raising awareness of how prevalent sexual harassment is in the workplace and how common is the experience of sexual assault.
But in the Bayou case, the issue has been muddied by political infighting within the party between the former EELV leader and Sandrine Rousseau, a fiery lawmaker.
Referring to Rousseau – who publicised his break-up and his ex’s mental struggles on a TV show – Bayou said: “She went too far.”
“It’s irresponsible to … make accusations without corroborating [them]”, Bayou said in a televised interview on Tuesday, adding that the situation was Kafakesque: “I am innocent … but I cannot defend myself.”
France’s left-leaning daily Libération revealed over the weekend that a group of feminists had been investigating Bayou privately, speaking to his former partners with a view to building a case against him.
He likened the experience to being “put under surveillance”.
The case has sparked an internal crisis in the EELV party at the same time as its larger left-wing ally, the France Unbowed, has been embarrassed by news that one of its senior parliamentarians slapped his wife.
Three ministers in President Emmanuel Macron‘s governments have been accused of rape, most recently Damien Abad, who was sacked in July. All three deny the allegations.
But Bayou has found support among some of the usual backers of France’s #MeToo movement, which since 2017 has helped highlight the prevalence of sexual abuse.
A Socialist former minister for women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, referred to “dysfunction” in the way Bayou had been treated, adding: “These things should not be sorted out in television studios.”
“A break-up, even more so when it is the result of a unilateral decision, is violent by nature,” read an editorial defending Bayou in Libération last week.
And famed feminist writer Caroline Fourest raised her own misgivings, saying that women needed to continue to denounce their aggressors but that journalists and politicians needed to be aware of the risk of allegations being weaponised.
“Today there are men and women who are collateral victims of the explosion in speaking out,” she told L’Opinion magazine.
In Bayou’s case, his accuser has not spoken publicly or through a lawyer about the allegations, leaving the claims by Rousseau – an ambitious internal rival – the only evidence against him.
In July, Bayou’s former partner approached an internal committee of the EELV party tasked with investigating allegations of sexual misconduct but then declined to testify.
That meant the inquiry stalled, leaving Bayou unable to give his version of events despite asking to testify on four occasions.
Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti told a committee in parliament on September 27 that he was “fed up” with efforts by political parties to set up their own investigations into sexual harassment. “The judicial system is the only place in a democracy where justice can be delivered,” he said. Dupond-Moretti has himself come under fire for comments viewed as outdated and sexist.
But feminist campaigners have pointed out that the overwhelming majority of rape or sexual assault cases conclude without convictions or are never reported, with women often declining to lodge police complaints because they view it as pointless.
Many highly regulated professions – from medics to lawyers – also have internal disciplinary processes that sanction their members outside of the judicial system.
Rousseau said on Sunday she had no regrets about denouncing her colleague “at a moment when there was a need for transparency”.
“I am protecting the struggle of women and I will continue to protect it. I won’t give up,” she told France 3 television.
Bayou remains a member of parliament and has vowed to clear his name.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)