PARIS: A prominent French author who has never made any secret of his preference for sex with adolescent girls and boys is at the centre of a firestorm of controversy as one former partner publishes a book describing the lasting trauma of underage intercourse over three decades ago.
For many, the debate over the behaviour of writer Gabriel Matzneff, 83, is long overdue, given the essayist and commentator had described in sometimes lurid details his experiences with underage teens in his published work.
In the book “Consent”, Vanessa Springora, 47, now a leading publisher, describes how she was seduced at the age of 14 by Matzneff, then aged 36 years her senior, and how this left lasting scars.
Its publication – due on Thursday – comes as France is coming to terms in the age of #MeToo with a settling of scores after decades of what is seen by some, but not all, as an overly permissive attitude towards sexual exploitation.
In one of the most prominent recent cases, top French actress Adele Haenel accused film director Christophe Ruggia of constantly harassing her from the age of 12 to 15. She has since filed a complaint against him.
And the controversy has intensified around film director Roman Polanski, a fugitive from US justice since 1978 after admitting the statutory rape of a 13 year-old, after he brought out his new film “An Officer and a Spy”.
There is also increasing scrutiny over the French artist Paul Gauguin’s relationships on the Polynesian island of Tahiti with adolescent girls who feature in his paintings.
Document and falsify
Matzneff has over the years spoken at length in TV shows and written about his predilection for teens. In the mid 1970s, he published a well known but notorious essay called “Les Moins de seize ans” (“Those Less than 16”).
Despite Matzneff’s boasts of a long list of conquests, Springora is the first person to go on the record to describe her experiences with him.
“As if his passage through my life had not devastated me enough, he now has to document, falsify, record and etch forever his misdeeds,” she writes in the book.
“How to admit that you have been abused, when you can’t deny giving consent? When did you feel desire for this adult who hastened to benefit from it? For years, I will also struggle with this notion of the victim.”
Matzneff has denied any wrongdoing and in a statement to the Parisien newspaper on Sunday denounced “such unjust and excessive attacks” and claimed his relationship with Springora had been one of “beauty”.
Ahead of the book’s several publications, ministers have rounded on Matzneff, saying that his literary reputation should not protect him from the consequences.
“Having a literary aura is not a guarantee of impunity. I send all my support to all the victims who have the courage to break the silence,” said Culture Minister Franck Riester.
Adrien Taquet, the minister at the health ministry charged with protecting children, hailed Springora for speaking out so long after the events and expressed hope it would encourage other women to join her.
“I would like that the end of the silence, the end of impunity … does not stop here,” he told Europe 1 radio.
Not the right words
The controversy has also renewed attention on extraordinary television footage from 1990 where prominent French literary commentator Bernard Pivot, hosting his chat show “Apostrophes”, lets Matzneff talk unchallenged about his sexual exploits.
“Why are you specialised in the schoolgirls and kitty-cats?” asks Pivot with an amused tone. “I prefer to have in my life people who are not toughened up and who are more kind,” Matzneff replies.
The only dissenting voice comes from Canadian writer Denise Bombardier, who furiously interjects: “I think I am living now on another planet … Mr Matzneff seems pitiful.”
The uproar over the conduct of Pivot, now president of the Academy Goncourt which hands out one of France’s most prestigious literary prizes, only grew when in a tweet he expressed no regret for the interview which he argued was the product of a different era.
“In the 1970s and 1980s, literature came before morality. Today morality comes before literature. Morally, it is a progress,” he said.
Amid uproar over those comments, Pivot later added he regretted he did “not have the right words that there needed to be” on the 1990 programme.