France: Witnesses back women in post-MeToo defamation trial

Former Green Party officials in France say they should have blown the whistle on alleged sexual misconduct by a lawmaker

PARIS -- Former officials of France's Green Party said Thursday they should have acted earlier on reports of sexual misconduct by a lawmaker accused by six women of harassment and abuse. They stressed that the #MeToo movement since then has raised their awareness on the issue.

The ex-politicians were testifying Thursday at a Paris trial prompted by Denis Baupin, a former Green Party politician and Paris city official who has brought a defamation case against the women.

In 2016, French media published accounts from 14 women who alleged Baupin had groped, sexted and otherwise harassed them between 1998 and 2013. The statute of limitations had expired on the alleged acts.

Baupin denied wrongdoing and sued the women named in the reports. Four journalists who published allegations from the women are also defendants in the case.

Baupin's lawyer, Emmanuel Pierrat, said his client did nothing illegal and filed a defamation lawsuit to "fully clear his name." Baupin decided not to attend the trial.

Former Green Party chief and government member Cecile Duflot told the court Thursday she suffered an attempted sexual assault from Baupin in 2008 and was aware of other incidents related to Baupin, and regretted she didn't speak out, saying she was trying to protect the party.

Speaking through tears, Duflot described a meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil, during which Baupin — who was her rival within the party — knocked at her hotel room door. When she opened, he put his hand on her neck saying "come on, let yourself go." She panicked and managed to make him leave by kicking his leg.

She said she didn't realize she could file a complaint for such behavior and at the time she didn't consider Baupin to be a sexual predator, though she now realized he was.

As party chief, she also told other women to try to ignore Baupin's behavior. She acknowledged this was a "huge mistake."

"I lacked understanding toward these women", she said.

Duflot was speaking publicly about Baupin's alleged sexual misconduct for the first time. Referring to the #MeToo movement, she said: "It's good we changed times."

"The women after us, not only they will get (political) responsibilities, but they will also know that they are not forced to endure that," she concluded, crying.

Other former party officials acknowledged in court they had knowledge of some sexual misconduct allegations but didn't act at the time. Some said they considered it was pointless to go to the police, stressing that Baupin was a prominent party figure who could influence members' careers.

Ex-party officials backing the defendants said the #MeToo movement, a year and a half after the Baupin case broke out in French media, helped them change their views over sexual harassment and abuse and the need to speak out.

Stephane Sitbon-Gomez, a former close aide to Duflot, said that he had been among those telling women that "nothing could be done".

"I think we may have been accomplices", he said, adding he quit politics in 2015 with "only one regret: not to have acted on this case."

On Tuesday one of the defendants, former Green lawmaker Isabelle Attard, said she was glad of the defamation lawsuit because "this trial allows us to say what we lived. We were able to speak publicly, and we are going to be able to open a new chapter of our life."

The trial will end on Friday with lawyers' arguments. The ruling will come at a later date.