04:02, January 10 30 0 theguardian.com

2020-01-10 04:02:03
The Matzneff scandal shows France’s attitude to consent is finally starting to change

Over the last few weeks, the Parisian literary elite has been contorting itself into elaborate knots over the behaviour of Gabriel Matzneff, the 83-year-old prizewinning novelist, essayist and predator. In Le Consentement, an explosive new memoir, Vanessa Springora describes her relationship with Matzneff, which began in the mid-1980s, when she was 14 and he in his 50s. Springora was seduced by Matzneff after meeting him at a dinner party to which her mother had taken her. She writes of spending afternoons fellating Matzneff, while her schoolfriends hung out in the playground around the corner.

The revelations have caused a storm. Prosecutors have now opened a rape inquiry. On 7 January Gallimard, one of France’s most revered publishing houses, announced that it was cancelling the publication of Matzneff’s latest tome. The same day the government announced the withdrawal of a state-funded bursary enjoyed by Matzneff that presumably freed up his time for his amorous pursuits. He is the latest man to have his reputation destroyed in a matter of days for behaviour to which many people turned a blind or an indulgent eye for decades.

Matzneff’s predilection for underage girls was certainly no secret in Parisian literary circles. His diaries, in which he details his sexual exploits and boasts of the dozens of young girls and boys he slept with in Paris and the sex tours he took to the Philippines where he paid for sex with underage boys, have been published by Gallimard for years. In a widely circulated clip of a television show from 1990, Maztneff can be seen being quizzed about his predilection for “schoolgirls” by Bernard Pivot, one of France’s most famous literary figures, with fellow guests laughing indulgently. He appears deeply offended when one guest, the Canadian writer Denise Bombardier, expresses unalloyed disgust; the following day the writer Jacques Lanzmann declared that someone should have slapped her for being so rude.

The heated debate both in France and further afield over the past few days has tended to focus on what the Matzneff affair tells us about literary France and its self-indulgence. A 1977 open letter published in Le Monde and Libération, defending three men accused of the sexual abuse of a brother and sister aged 12 and 13, has been frequently cited: written by Matzneff himself, it was signed by 67 people, including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre and Roland Barthes. There has been shock at the willingness of such figures (many of whom later acknowledged that they should not have signed it) to support the petition, amid claims that it proves how out of touch the elite is and has always been with the rest of the country.

There is certainly no suggestion that broader French society is any more permissive when it comes to paedophilia than any other. And while French literature has a long history of sexual libertinism – from the Marquis de Sade to Georges Bataille – the Matzneff scandal is not, as some have argued, a literary phenomenon stretching back centuries. Instead, it is much more likely to have its roots in the social and cultural revolution of May 1968.

Like many other aspects of French culture at that time, in a country that was still largely in thrall to the Catholic church, the policing of sexual culture came under attack. Pierre Verdrager, an academic who has written a cultural history of paedophilia, explains that in the 1970s and 1980s, “the identification of the potentially sexual nature of the relationship between adults and children was one of the ways of going against the bourgeois order”. It comes as no surprise to discover that Matzneff was at the forefront of a movement to legitimise paedophilia during this period, when he and a group of other activists tried to position it as an intrinsic aspect of sexual liberation. Paedophilia was argued to be a form of emancipation for children, which would give them agency over their own bodies and free them from the yoke of adult authority, and specifically from the bourgeois shackles of their parents. Matzneff went so far as to liken the harassment of paedophiles to that of Jews during the war.

The pro-paedophilia movement ultimately remained marginal and failed to gain legitimacy – in all but one, highly significant, respect. Unlike almost every other western country, the legal notion of statutory rape has never been part of modern French law, although children under the age of six were notoriously considered in a 2005 court ruling to be too young to have given their consent (implying that a child over six could). As recently as 2017, the 30-year-old attacker of an 11-year-old girl avoided prosecution after the defence successfully argued that “violence, coercion, threat or surprise” – the definition of rape in French law – had not occurred.

In spite of the public outcry, when a bill on sexual violence was brought to the national assembly in 2018, and the legal age of consent of 15 voted into law, the clause that would have brought statutory rape of a minor on to the books was voted down. The current, complicated, set of laws on rape deem sexual relations with a minor under the age of 15 illegal, but nonetheless considers that a minor is able to give their consent, in which case the specific charge of rape cannot be brought.

Matzneff is not merely a throwback to an era that pandered to the romantic idea of an intellectual aristocracy refusing to bow to bourgeois morality. In a country where the law regarding consent has, until recently, been out of kilter with those almost everywhere else, he didn’t even need to hide in plain sight. Now his staunchest defenders are abandoning him, while Vanessa Springora’s book is already a bestseller. Time is truly up for Monsieur Matzneff.

Natasha Lehrer is a writer and translator based in Paris

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