France's political boys' club is in for a rude awakening. The #culottegate hashtag campaign bears similarities to Germany's #Aufschrei (outcry) when a politician commented on a journalist's cleavage in 2013.
A female journalist bent over to pick up a pen. French Finance Minister Michel Sapin (pictured) noticed. "He cannot keep his hand to himself and mutters, 'Ah, what are you showing me?' and then snaps the panty elastic on the journalist wearing the low-rise trousers." This is a scene at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as described by the journalists Stephanie Marteau and Aziz Zemouri in their book, "L'Elysee Off," which details the intrigues and manipulation behind the doors of the residential palace of the president of the republic. Sapin is a close confidant of Francois Hollande's.
Ever since that incident became publicly known, new focus has been placed on sexual harassment in France - especially on the internet and especially under the hashtag #culottegate. ("Culotte" is the French word for underpants.) The discussion is also happening in traditional media: In the newspaper Liberation, more than 500 people launched a petition against sexual harassment by politicians. "It is generally difficult for women to talk about this kind of violence," the petition reads, "but in the political microcosm, this is undoubtedly reinforced." The petition's signatories allege that France's political class is aware of the harassment and assaults that occur behind closed doors but do nothing about them.
Cornelia Moser, a cultural scientist and gender researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, said "an atmosphere of secrecy" prevailed among the elite. "Politics are about power," she said. "Whenever power and money are involved, the old boys' network works far too well. They protect each other."
The case of Denis Baupin is a prime example. On International Women's Day, he was one of many politicians who wanted to draw attention to sexism with a Twitter campaign. So the deputy parliamentary speaker and member of Europe Ecology-The Greens (EELV) put on red lipstick and posed for the camera. For many women in parliament, this was the straw that broke the camel's back. Baupin had not previously been considered an advocate of gender equality. Quite the opposite: Many female EELV members say he has bullied and sexually harassed them - and without consequence.
Baupin's public declaration motivated EELV spokeswoman Sandrine Rousseau to report an incident that had occurred at a party meeting in 2011. Baupin, she said, had pressed her against a wall, held her breast and tried to kiss her. Seven more women came forward and reported similar cases of public harassment. Others said Baupin had sent them intrusive text messages for weeks on end; even more reported that he had made sexually suggestive remarks. Prosecutors in France have now opened an examination into the harassment allegations against Baupin. Since 2012, sexual harassment has been punishable by up to three years in prison in France.
Luc Rosenzweig, a former editor-in-chief of the daily Le Monde, believes that political circles are prone to following the "law of the jungle." He said politics in France meant "a very tough environment where one must assert oneself." This type of situation can breed sexual harassment and cover-ups.
Moser takes a different view. Sexism is "part of a system that keeps women out of politics," she said. Complaints are "often not taken seriously or dismissed as a trivial offense." Thus, sexual violence is trivialized and the victims are expected to bear the consequences.
#Aufschrei in Germany
In 2013, the German journalist Laura Himmelreich reported on a salacious remark made by the Unwanted advancespolitician Rainer Brüderle in 2013. The incident led to the #Aufschrei hashtag and vigorous public debate.
The German journalist and blogger Helga Hansen was one of the first to tweet under the hashtag. Such campaigns do, in fact, create awareness of the issues, she said: "Especially with #Aufschrei, we noticed that many of those concerned, including some men, felt for the first time they were not alone with their problems." This is also applies to the #ausnahmslos (without exception) initiative in which supporters countered the statements that used the New Year's Eve attacks in Cologne to support their own agenda - which was often less motivated by fighting Workplace sexual harassment worse than thoughtmisogyny than by reducing migration to Germany.
"Such campaigns are important because they show that feminism can convey its own content and avoid being filtered by the media," Moser said. She said that in France, too, feminists can only get an audience nowadays when they partake in the "racist discourse" - for instance, by making assertions that Muslims cannot integrate.
Helga Hansen is less optimistic about cybercampaigns. "Since #Aufschrei, we have been discussing public harassment," she said, "but nothing has happened yet." Laws on sexual assault and rape will soon be tightened - a bit. But the fundamental paradigm shift that feminists have been demanding for years has still not taken place. So, smacks on the bottom, snaps of the panties and creepy comments about cleavage continue to have no consequences, even though men have been told that "no means no."