France has spent the last two years or so waiting for its Harvey Weinstein moment: a big trial, the fall of someone powerful, a viscerally indignant country.
The conversation around #MeToo in France has been undeniably intense. But when Frenchwomen have spoken up against film directors (Luc Besson, Roman Polanski) and intellectuals (Tariq Ramadan), they have always faced the usual victim blaming. That then leads to divided opinions, aborted prosecutions, and meditations on the French art of seduction.
Something seems to have happened, however, with the case surrounding the acclaimed writer Gabriel Matzneff, whose taste for teenage French girls and young Asian boys, is no secret — he wrote extensively about this habit for years — but who, as of this month, is finally facing charges for promoting the sexual abuse of children. The charges come shortly after the release of a book by Vanessa Springora, the head of a Paris-based publishing house, whose memoir of her abusive relationship with Mr. Matzneff seems to have finally cracked the dam.
What makes the story so powerful stems from the age difference of the protagonists — Ms. Springora became sexually involved with Mr. Matzneff in the mid-1980s, when she was 14 and he was 50. What makes this case so particular is also the fact that the victim’s account can’t be challenged; her abuser has already proudly confessed everything. But in her memoir, Ms. Springora has done more: She has unveiled the inner life of one of the children “Under 16 Years Old”, as one of Mr. Matzneff’s books was titled — one of those who, until now, inhabited his world as simply a docile character to be acted upon. In doing so, she has built a bridge between two moral revolutions.
One day, I hope, we will look back on these months and see that they marked the end of a long state of confusion around the French adolescent girl, the “jeune fille”, this liberated, daring, literate creature. My mother, who was 18 years old during the revolution of May 1968, told me that a man passing by in the street asked her if she would sleep with him. No, she told him, she wouldn’t. “Damn bourgeoise!” the man spat at her.
One can imagine the difficulties that must have faced the girls caught between the joy of being sexually liberated and the injunction to be so. And, looming on the horizon, the requirement not to be liberated too much. At that time, a woman could vote or inherit property only at age 21, but could marry at 15: things were certainly confusing. The French language doesn’t offer the linguistic crutch of “teen” years: You’re douze ans, then treize, quatorze, quinze …
The Matzneff story has brought back memories of the case for pedophilia made by a small intellectual elite who toyed with sexual transgression to the point of insanity in 1968. Most of France did not go quite so far. But the figure of the jeune fille did epitomize a confusion around a new sexual order that was not in order yet. In between the clear states of childhood and adulthood arose this new being. What would she be like? What was really permitted?
Vanessa Springora came of age at that time. I imagine that like me, she must have grown up watching movies on VHS by Maurice Pialat, Éric Rohmer, Claude Miller, Benoît Jacquot, all directors fascinated by adolescent girls and trying to understand them, in efforts that felt sometimes generous and delicate, and sometimes disturbing. Their girl characters were smart and deep and precocious, and their torments were taken seriously. Parents were often not in the picture; men, more or less reassuring, were never far away. These weren’t uplifting teen movies, but films for adults portraying girls in a way that probably shaped those of us watching in return.
My husband, who is American, is scandalized by the Rohmer movie “Pauline à la plage” (“Pauline at the Beach”), in which a small group of young adults share matters of the heart with a 15-year-old. I am almost offended by his outrage, for I would like to think of my adolescent self as Pauline, more clearsighted in her own desires than the adults around her. Was I?
I will spare him “Noce Blanche, (“White Wedding”) in which a 16-year-old Vanessa Paradis has an affair with her middle-aged philosophy teacher, or “Beau Père”, which tells the story of an affair between a 14-year-old and her stepfather almost as if it were a comedy, or “Un moment d’égarement” (“One Wild Moment”) — originally made in 1977, then remade in 2015 — in which a teenager sleeps with her father’s best friend. “Times have changed: It’s no longer with their wives that people cheat on their friends, but with their daughters”, said the critic of Le Monde when the original film came out.
But what did the real-life daughters really want? The director of “Noce Blanche”, which was a big success in France, would eventually be convicted of sexually harassing two actresses. But we would learn that later.
It is easy to imagine how the story of Vanessa Springora and Gabriel Matzneff could have made a typically French film of the ’80s: the literate Parisian teenager and the scandalous writer, a fascinating dangerous liaison in the arty St.-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. There would have been an ambiguous supporting role for the mother, a little confused, a little jealous. The film would have ended when they broke up.
We might have secretly envied this girl, who had lived such a forbidden adventure. A writer I know, who is the same age as Ms. Springora and grew up in St.-Germain-des-Prés, told me, “I was lucky never to meet Matzneff, because I was completely fascinated by him”.
In her book, Ms. Springora does not deny that she consented to the affair. And yet there is no doubt in the mind of the reader that she is a victim. In the wake of the publication of her book, the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has repeated, with the same passion he showed when he defended Mr. Polanski, that “a teenager and a child are not the same thing” and that it was a different era. What Ms. Springora’s book demonstrates is that these may both be true, but they are by no means an argument. As Nabokov once said, “outside of Mr. Humbert’s manic gaze, there is no nymphet”.
Ms. Springora’s great contribution is to expose the ravages of a relationship that may have been desired. She sends the responsibility back to the adult with a simple sentence: “It is not my attraction that needed to be questioned, it is his”. Something has changed in the kingdom of the jeune fille.
A few weeks before the book’s release, the actress Adèle Haenel shocked the French public with a momentous interview with the online magazine Mediapart in which she described being abused when she was 12 to 15 by a 36-year-old director, Christophe Ruggia, who thought they were “in love”.
One can imagine how amazed the vain Mr. Matzneff must be to realize how he is remembered, to find out that young girls don’t disappear when they grow up. They age; they become women able to speak for the very young girls they once were, who got trapped in the dreams of others.
Valentine Faure is the author of a book about the Jacqueline Sauvage case.