The actor is accused of rape and sex assaults. But women’s voices are being shouted down by the country’s celebration of machismo and unconventional artistes
It was a grey day in February 2021 when I saw the newly indicted Gérard Depardieu. I was walking near my home in Paris and one of France’s most celebrated actors was across the street dressed as a detective. He was shooting a film, playing Commissaire Jules Maigret — the most famous fictional policeman in France — and was smiling in between takes.
On the surface the movie, Maigret and the Dead Girl, looked like another big entertainment hit in the making but there were serious tensions behind the scenes. Paris magistrates had just charged Depardieu with a series of rapes and other sex attacks on Charlotte Arnould, an actress. The assaults were alleged to have taken place a couple of miles away at Depardieu’s £45 million Paris mansion in August 2018.
Despite the investigation Depardieu remained on unconditional bail, free to continue with his glittering career. “He’s a professional doing his job,” one of the production staff told me. “A great actor needs to be left alone.”
This same complacency — some might call it Gallic arrogance — has been on display once again in recent weeks. In the years since I saw him, there have been no significant developments in the prosecution of Depardieu, 75, but at least 14 women have come forward to accuse the actor of multiple violent sexual assaults.
Like Arnould, who is now 28, most have renounced their legal right to anonymity to highlight their allegations, but support for the so-called sacred monster of French cinema is overwhelming. This month President Macron — who has previously declared “I’m a feminist” and pledged to make gender equality the “great cause” of his presidency — called for an end to the “manhunt” during a talk show filmed at the Élysée Palace over the Christmas holidays, saying Depardieu still “makes France proud” and that he should be presumed innocent until convicted by a court.
Last week famous women including the former first lady Carla Bruni — the wife of Nicolas Sarkozy — and Charlotte Rampling, the English actress and doyenne of the French arts establishment, were among 56 celebrities who signed an open letter published in Le Figaro, expressing outrage at the “lynching” of Depardieu and that he should benefit from the presumption of innocence like any other suspect. “Don’t erase Gérard Depardieu,” they said of the actor who made his name internationally in films such as The Last Metro, Green Card and Cyrano de Bergerac. “Gérard Depardieu is probably the greatest of all actors. When you attack Gérard Depardieu like this, it is art you are attacking.”
This stance says a great deal about France’s rigorously macho culture. The great contradiction of the 1789 French Revolution is that it overthrew the autocratic monarchical system but not the patriarchy. Artists in particular are still meant to be promiscuous and unconventional, in line with traditions going back centuries and, according to this warped logic, they need protecting. This attitude is just as common among the grandes dames of French cinema as it is among the men.
Depardieu, who denies any wrongdoing, wrote a letter to Le Figaro in October, in which he pilloried the “media court” and said: “Never, ever have I abused a woman.” Yet the accusations against him continue to mount. A documentary called Depardieu: The Fall of the Ogre, which was broadcast on French television this month, includes a video clip of him variously making obscene comments about women and a ten-year-old girl, and sexually harassing a female translator.
It also outlines a growing dossier of rape and sexual assault allegations. There is CCTV footage of Depardieu performing a sex act on Arnould, who once considered him a family friend. Paris prosecutors also confirmed this month that the actress Hélène Darras, 43, filed a complaint against Depardieu. She is interviewed in the France 2 documentary, saying she was treated like a “piece of meat” on the set of the 2008 film, Disco. Like many complainants, Darras said she was scared of exposing “the king of the show”, so waited 16 years to go to the authorities.
Another accuser, the actress Emmanuelle Debever, 60, who claimed she was sexually assaulted by Depardieu on a film set when she was 19, jumped off a Paris bridge this month and died in a suspected suicide. “This monster allowed himself to enjoy plenty during filming, making the most of the intimacy inside a carriage,” Debever wrote in a Facebook post in 2019.
Feminists and other campaigners have accused Depardieu’s defenders of “losing touch with reality”. Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, a Paris councillor, said that, as was so often the case in France, the “words of each victim are being ignored”. Yet this position is not new. Activists point to 2018, when screen legend Catherine Deneuve, 80, who starred with Depardieu in The Last Metro, was among 100 women who condemned the #MeToo movement for going too far. “We defend a right to pester, which is vital to sexual freedom,” Deneuve and her allies wrote, as they lambasted a “puritanical witch-hunt”.
#MeToo did cut through in France, particularly amongst the young, and even inspired an equivalent campaign #BalanceTonPorc in which women were encouraged to publicly name and shame men over inappropriate behaviour. But there is undoubtedly a generational aspect to this debate. Brigitte Bardot, another French cinema icon in her eighties, has castigated a new generation of thespians for posting the identities of male predators online, saying “in the vast majority of cases” the accusers were “hypocritical nobodies, and ridiculous”.
These reactionary views can be seen at the very top of French society. Macron has made a point of defending members of his own cabinet facing rape allegations. There were, for instance, widespread demonstrations in 2020, when he made Gérald Darmanin — at the time an alleged sex attacker — his interior minister, and thus in charge of France’s police forces.
The charges against Darmanin have since been dismissed, but Macron’s defence was revealing. Clearly referencing the #MeToo movement, Macron said men who had been accused but not yet tried should not be judged “by the street” and “social networks” and that France should not adopt “the worst of Anglo-Saxon society”.
A report by France’s High Council for Equality between Women and Men, a watchdog, has called for an “emergency plan” to deal with “the massive, violent and sometimes lethal consequences” of sexism against women. Figures produced by Darmanin’s department show a woman dies in France every 2.5 to three days after a beating by a partner. Every year, 93,000 women are victims of rape or attempted rape, while 220,000 suffer domestic violence.
Yet the French judiciary is notoriously sluggish and prone to dropping charges. A strict statute of limitations for prosecutions has ensured that allegations against numerous power players — from broadcasters to captains of industry — escape the scrutiny of a trial. This year, prosecutors closed a high-profile investigation into Gérald Marie, a model agency boss who was accused of sexual offences in the Eighties and Nineties on the basis that too much time had lapsed. Marie denied the allegations.
Beyond the letter in defence of Depardieu, the other big controversy in Paris during Christmas was the killing of a mother and her four young children, including a baby, at their home in the suburb of Meaux. The prime suspect was the woman’s husband, who is facing five charges of murder.
It was also revealed that he was first arrested for stabbing his wife in 2019, but charges against him were dropped because of his frail psychological state. Campaigners say police and magistrates ultimately support male suspects, rather than their far more vulnerable victims.
“Equality” may be a core constitutional value of the French Republic, but it can feel as though a culture of impunity exists, particularly when it comes to crimes against women.
Nabila Ramdani is a French journalist and the author of Fixing France: How to Repair a Broken Republic, published by PublicAffairs and Hurst.