December 27, 2023 - 3:00pm

The French are famously relaxed about sex and relationships. Too relaxed, according to thousands of women who took part in demonstrations in French cities last month, protesting about high levels of sexual and domestic violence. Their point was proved on Christmas Day, when more than 60 celebrities published an open letter defending the latest high-profile Frenchman accused of rape, sexual assault and harassment. 

The signatories, who include the British actress Charlotte Rampling and the singer Carla Bruni, claim that actor Gérard Depardieu has been the victim of a “lynching”. The 74-year-old Depardieu has been accused of rape, sexual assault and harassment by more than a dozen women over the last five years. He was placed under investigation on suspicion of rape and sexual assault in 2020 after a complaint by an actress. Police dropped the charge but it has been re-opened on appeal, and a second case was opened three months ago when another actress accused him of groping her on the set of a film in 2007. 

“When we attack Gérard Depardieu in this way, it is art that we attack,” his supporters announced this week. “Through his genius as an actor, Gérard Depardieu contributes to the artistic influence of our country.” It is a massive non-sequitur, as though a brilliant performance in a film means that someone couldn’t possibly be guilty of sexual misconduct. The accusations against the actor have yet to be tested in court but the sentiments echo remarks made last week by President Emmanuel Macron. He prejudged the issue in a TV interview, declaring that Depardieu has been the target of a “manhunt”. 

The effect of such remarks is to silence women who might otherwise have reported less well-known men to the police. And there is a crying need for sexual and domestic violence to be taken seriously in France, where official figures put the number of rapes or attempted rapes reported each year at 94,000.

This year, at least 121 women had been killed by a current or former partner by November — and that was before a horrific discovery was made by police in an apartment in Meaux, a town 25 miles from Paris, on Christmas Day. The bodies of a mother and four children aged between nine months and 10 years lay in different rooms in what a prosecutor described as a “very violent crime scene”. The children’s father, who had previously been accused of domestic violence, was arrested on suspicion of murder the following day. It follows a series of familicides in the Paris area in recent months, including the murders of three female children by their father in November. In October, a police officer killed himself after killing his three daughters.

Most of the men accused of such unspeakable crimes are known only to their own friends and families. They will never win awards or be profiled in national newspapers. But their behaviour demonstrates the urgent need for a sea change in attitudes towards allegations of violence against women in France. Making excuses for famous men accused of rape creates a culture of impunity, telling women that their allegations against ordinary men are unlikely to be believed. 

In 2017, Macron pledged to crack down on “horrific and shameful” violence against women, describing French society as “sick with sexism”. Judging by recent comments from celebrities, including the President himself, it evidently still is.

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.