'Miss France' contestants accuse organiser of sex harassment

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The Independent Online

A television documentary last night accused the organiser of the Miss France beauty contest of sexually harassing teenage girls in his care.

Jean-Claude Benhamou, the president of the Miss France Federation, was accused of being a "groper" by several girls interviewed in a film by the respected Franco-German cultural channel Arte. An attempt by Mr Benhamou to block the broadcast in the French courts was defeated three hours before the documentary was shown.

The allegations were similar to those made in a BBC film last year about the fashion modelling industry. The difference is that the Arte team, led by the director, Gilles de Maistre, had not set out to uncover the sleazy side of the business.

It had intended to make a gentle film, "Raphaelle au pays des 'miss'" (Raphaelle in the land of the Misses), following a group of teenage girls seeking fame and fortune.

In the course of the filming, the girls made the accusations against Mr Benhamou. Aurelie, 19, complained that the competition's boss had "wandering hands" and that he was a "toucheur" (groper). Marjorie, 17 burst into tears on camera and said that Mr Benhamou had fondled her and sexually harassed her. Her family has since brought a legal action against Mr Benhamou for "sexual aggression against a minor". All the allegations were made in the final 20 minutes of the one-hour film.

A court in Paris decided last Friday that the film was libellous in its original form and the accusations should be cut. Arte offered to add a sequence in which Mr Benhamou could respond to the claims but he refused. The Paris appeal court overturned the original ruling yesterday, saying the film could go ahead in its entirety, in the name of freedom of speech and the public interest.

There are two rival Miss France organisations; the contest organised by Mr Benhamou and the "official" competition, whose winner goes on to compete in Miss World.

Six months ago, the BBC stirred controversy in the world of modelling when it showed a documentary accusing an executive at a top model agency of preying sexually on teenage hopefuls, including girls under 16 years of age.

Some people in the business said it showed nothing that was not well known. Others said that the exposure of the pressures and risks faced by young models was long overdue.