How did certain French intellectuals get away with preying upon young girls, shamelessly, in public and over decades?
Lily Dunn is a British writer of fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of the novel Shadowing the Sun (2008), and her essays have appeared in Granta. Her debut nonfiction, Sins of My Father: A Daughter, a Cult, a Wild Unravelling, is forthcoming in 2022. She is co-editor, with Zoe Gilbert, of A Wild and Precious Life: A Recovery Anthology (2020). She lives in the UK.
In January 2020, Le consentement (Consent) by Vanessa Springora was published, a memoir exposé of Gabriel Matzneff, a well-known and much-respected French writer, but also a shameless predator of teen girls and preteen boys. Springora charts her two-year relationship with Matzneff, which began in 1986, when she was 14 and he 49, and critiques the cultural landscape that allowed it to happen, the complicity of her mother, and the intellectual and artistic circles that revolved around the Parisian neighbourhood of Saint-Germain-des-Prés where they lived. A year later, there was another astonishing exposé, La familia grande (2021) by Camille Kouchner – the daughter of France’s former foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner – documenting the incestuous relationship between her stepfather, the academic and politician Olivier Duhamel, and Kouchner’s twin brother, then aged 14.
Springora and Kouchner broke years of silence with these testimonies, laying bare the sexual violations these men committed, and landing a bomb right into the centre of the French elite who had allowed them to escape blame for so long. The bomb site is still smoking. Yet, barely two years ago, Matzneff was given safe refuge in his own country, where the authorities chose to turn a blind eye to his unashamed paedophilia – clear to anyone with eyes to see, given that he wrote up his exploits in widely published books. He was a recipient of a writer’s allowance by the Centre national du livre (National Centre of the Book), and in 1995 the minister of culture awarded him the Order of Arts and Letters in recognition of his contribution to the arts and literature. In 2013, he was awarded the Renaudot, one of France’s most prestigious literary awards (his friends were on the panel). But, paradoxically, this award was also the first unravelling, finally driving an outraged Springora out of hiding.
Springora was introduced to Matzneff when she was 13, at a family friend’s dinner party she attended with her mother. She recalls how he seduced the guests with his charisma, but his eyes were always on her. Her mother flirted for his attention and offered to drive him home; despite knowing his preference for young girls, she allowed her just-teen daughter to sit beside him on the backseat where ‘something magnetic passed between us. He had his arm against mine, his eyes on me, and the predatory smile of a large golden wildcat.’
What followed was his grooming of Springora through a series of intensely complimentary letters, sometimes writing twice a day. When she finally wrote back to him (she’d just turned 14) he ‘pounced’. He would wait for her on the street, devising an impromptu encounter, then invited her to his apartment, for pastries, where he kissed her.
Springora is honest about her infatuation with Matzneff in the early months of their relationship, about the novel intoxication of being desired so profoundly. In some ways, she is the classic victim, abandoned by a father who had no interest in her, and with a mother who worked long hours. She was bookish, reclusive, different from her peers, but could be independent minded and fierce when her mother attempted to intervene. She was progressive and spirited, radical in her outlook. Matzneff had chosen wisely. This was a young girl who would be intrigued, admiring even, of her predator’s distain for the bourgeois family.
Matzneff assumed the role of mentor, telling himself perhaps that his actions lay within the traditional Hellenic framework of pederasty, a romantic relationship between a teacher and student, generally considered to be more emotionally driven than sexual. He showed an interest in Springora’s schoolwork, helped her write her essays, let her walk with him through the Luxembourg Gardens, privileging her with his attention, an elegant award-winning literary hero. All the same, he was discreet. He was careful that his predations were seen to be within the law. French law did not legislate an age of consent at this time, but stated that, while a relationship with a minor under the age of 15 was illegal, it was not automatically considered statutory rape. Springora was not protected as were her European sisters. Matzneff was puffed up with self-justification, standing by his belief that his relationships with adolescent girls were helpful to them. We don’t have to look far, though, to detect his self-serving motivations, and his manipulations and abuse of his power…