One of France’s most senior cabinet ministers has apologised for “inappropriate” behaviour towards a female journalist.
Hours after angrily denying that anything had happened, the finance minister Michel Sapin, a close friend of President François Hollande, issued a statement saying “sorry” for a different version of the incident at the Davos conference last year.
The partial backtrack came amid intense media pressure after a senior Green politician, Denis Baupin, had been accused earlier this week of groping and harassing female colleagues. Mr Baupin denies the allegations against him.
A book published last month, L’Elysée Off, said that an unidentified French woman journalist had bent over to pick up a pen during a briefing by Mr Sapin at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January last year. The book claimed that the minister said: “Ah, but what are you showing me here” and twanged the exposed elastic of the woman’s knickers.
When the book was published, and again on Tuesday, Mr Sapin dismissed the allegations as “totally false”. He later issued a statement to the French news agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP) admitting that he had used the words but denying that he had touched the woman’s underwear.
“During a visit in January 2015 to Davos, in the middle of 20 people, I made a comment to a female journalist about her clothing while placing my hand on her back,” Mr Sapin said. “There was no sexist or aggressive intent in my action, but the simple fact that I shocked the person in question shows that these words and actions were inappropriate, and I was and remain sorry.”
Mr Sapin said the journalist immediately asked to talk with him and that he had apologised to her.
The finance minister said that “in the current circumstances” he felt he had to issue the latest statement.
The incident may seem trivial to some, but the fact that Mr Sapin was forced to come clean suggest that a cultural change is – reluctantly – taking place in French politics. Over 500 French politicians and political activists, mostly but not all women, have signed a petition calling for an end to a conspiracy of silence about allegedly sexist and sexually aggressive behaviour by male French politicians.
Mr Baupin, 53, has started a legal action for defamation over the allegations of groping and harassment by eight women, including other elected Green politicians. But he has resigned as vice-president (deputy speaker) of the National Assembly until police investigations are carried out.
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