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January 11 2020
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Gabriel Matzneff in 2015, when all his books—Les Moins de Seize Ans, or “The Under 16s,” among them—were still in print.

Of all the #MeToo cases rocking the Western elite, France is enmeshed in the most astounding one so far: that of Gabriel Matzneff, lauded man of letters and, for 40-odd years, an unrepentant, talk-about-it-on-television pedophile. Only now is the writer facing comeuppance, with the publication of a memoir by Vanessa Springora, one of Matzneff’s victims, called Le Consentement, or “Consent.”

As was the case with Hollywood—the closest thing America has to a cultural elite—a few years ago, the French power structure that overlooked and even lionized Matzneff’s repeat offenses is coming under the microscope. The leaders of France’s literary and intellectual mafia, suffused with post–May 1968 laxity around sexual ethics, were given free rein to do, it seems, anything they wanted, as long as it was in the name of art. May ’68 started as a student movement but soon extended to general strikes that seized the entire country. It became a sexual revolution as well as a political one, whose players, especially under the Socialist government of François Mitterrand, soon found their way into the halls of real power.

But today, France’s anti-elites are impossible to ignore, thanks to crippling labor strikes and gilets jaunes protests. Authority, whether it’s political or cultural, has been taken in for questioning. And so the question now running across the banquettes of Brasserie Lipp and upstairs at the Café de Flore is: Who is next?

“Forbidden to Forbid”

Matzneff, 83, is a multiple-award-winning author of essays, literary criticism, and novels, released mostly by Gallimard, France’s most prestigious publisher—until January 7, that is, when Gallimard announced it was stopping all sales of Matzneff’s work. Along with columns in various publications, including the right-wing weekly Le Point, Matzneff has kept up a Woody Allen–ish work rhythm, putting out at least one book a year since the mid-1960s. Only some of his novels brush up against Humbertian themes. It is mostly in his journals, also published by Gallimard, since 1990, that he has dished with spectacular pride on his prolific career as a soft-focused “initiator” (read: rapist) of boys and girls, mostly at the dawn of puberty, but some, usually procured in Manila, under the age of 11.

Matzneff (center) with Philippe Sollers (left), the former editor in chief of Gallimard, in 1985. Sollers once signed a petition circulated by Matzneff advocating for the release of three pedophiles from prison.

Matzneff’s tract Les Moins de Seize Ans, or “The Under 16s,” part paroxysm on the joys of young flesh, part user’s manual for how to target the most vulnerable kids, part argument against establishing an age of consent, came out in 1974. That was six years after May ’68 made it “forbidden to forbid.” (Reprinted in 2005, Les Moins de Seize Ans was, until January 8, sold by Editions Léo Scheer, bundled with a second work, Passions Schismatiques; the publisher’s Web site still describes it as “a very strong instance of literature and passion, a monument against all forms of obscurantism.”)

He has dished with spectacular pride on his prolific career as a soft-focused “initiator” (read: rapist) of boys and girls, mostly at the dawn of puberty, but some, usually procured in Manila, under the age of 11.

Twenty-one years after the publication of Les Moins de Seize Ans, in 1995, Matzneff was named to the Order of Arts and Letters, France’s highest artistic distinction. Along with only some 15 other writers in the country, he receives an additional pension, reported to be around $800 a month, which may now be in jeopardy.

Thanks to Springora’s memoir about her two-year relationship with the novelist beginning when she was 14 and he was 50—she describes it as “Lolita speaks,” and it’s a grand slam of emotional honesty, moral clarity, psychological nuance, and rigorous economy of language—the world may be witnessing the first real consequences for an artist in a country that has stood so staunchly for freedom of expression and the untouchability of literature that it’s, well, venerated utterly shameless pedophiles because they also happen to be talented writers.

“Does literature excuse everything?,” Springora asks in Le Consentement. As a result of her excruciating inventory, which took years to write, after passages through depression and disordered eating, it doesn’t anymore. Now that the victims of other people’s liberation are finally speaking, Springora has done her country an important service.

“Does literature excuse everything?”

If you’re wondering, “cancellation” translates to annulation in French. Le Consentement came out on January 2 and it’s already in reprint. In a matter of days, the discussion around it has opened a new investigation into Matzneff for the rape of minors. (Legal experts disagree whether those charges will stick, since Springora’s case is beyond the statute of limitations. No other victim has as yet come forward to the police, though the investigation was opened in the hopes that some would.) Amazon has stopped selling Les Moins de Seize Ans entirely. (Though, as the prime-time chat show Le Quotidien mentioned on January 7, now-rare copies of the book are selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay.) Matzneff’s Web site, officially authored by “a friend” based in Asia, filled with fawning reader mail and dewy-eyed photos of Matzneff hand in hand with smiling young victims, has thankfully gone dark. Meanwhile the entire country stays glued to newspapers, Twitter, and TV for an arduous, sometimes gleeful, rehash of what May 1968 hath wrought.

Smooth Criminals

For anyone who woke up during Reagan’s morning in America, it’s hard to imagine how different cultural mores were across the Atlantic in the most stylish corners of Paris. In 1977, Matzneff wrote (anonymously) and circulated a petition arguing for the release from jail of three men convicted of raping children, signed by canonical figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes, and Jack Lang, a member of Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent’s Marrakech set who would go on to become the minister of culture under François Mitterrand.

Speaking of Mitterrand, in 1986, while still president of France, he said to the literary magazine Matulu, “Gabriel Matzneff has kept a journal of his life since he was 16 and it seems he’s known only one enemy: gravity. A hedonistic inspiration, pushed up from roots in the Mediterranean world, directs and guides him. This impenitent seducer, who defines himself as a mixture of Dorian Gray and Dracula, has always surprised me for his extreme taste for rigor and the density of his reflections.” (Um, nothing else about his work surprised you, then?)

Also in the 1970s, Libération, the newspaper founded by Jean-Paul Sartre, ran personal ads in which pedophiles searched for children, and housed a society for their defense, under the auspices of eradicating all forms of sexual repression. (An editorial in the newspaper on December 30 states clearly that it has changed its position.)

Heads full of intellectual theories by Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan taken to literal extremes, happy to deconstruct notions of “innocence” and “experience” on young living subjects without much concern for their welfare, soixante-huitards like Daniel Cohn-Bendit would go on TV to celebrate the polymorphous perversity of children. A 1982 clip of Cohn-Bendit on the literary talk show Apostrophes, recently unearthed, has been making the social-media rounds in the past week. In it, the now retired Green Party M.E.P. muses: “When a five-year-old girl starts to undress you it’s fantastic! It’s fantastic because it’s an absolutely erotomaniacal game!”

The March–December Relationship

The most painful denunciation of the literary milieu comes from Springora herself, who is today the head of the contemporary-French-literature publisher Éditions Julliard—ironically the first house to publish Les Moins de Seize Ans before it fell briefly out of print. Her mother, who worked as a publicist for a Saint-Germain publisher and then as a freelance copy editor, introduced Vanessa to Matzneff at a dinner party.

Vanessa Springora as a teenager, during her two-year relationship with the middle-aged Matzneff.

Springora describes herself as desperate for male approval due to an absent scoundrel of a father, and easy pickings for someone as canny as the charming and articulate writer, who traded on his reputation for carte blanche on TV and legions of hipster fans. She was in a corner reading Balzac when she sensed his “galactic presence.” Soon he was writing her flattering letters, then luring her, literally, with expensive pastries “just for her, as many as she wanted,” to be consumed at his apartment. Springora’s mother objected at first—in her book her mother asks her, “You’re not aware he’s a pedophile?”—but Springora, high on his fixation on her, which she confused with real love, argued her into submission. (That her mother, who sometimes invited Matzneff to dinner with the family, didn’t do more to stop them is still a sore subject between the two.)

Springora describes how Matzneff sodomized her for months before her hymen was finally cut by a doctor. He’d pick her up from school every day down the block, but no one asked why the creep in late middle age was hanging around the hospital. When she told her father about her boyfriend, he exploded in a rage, but never followed up on threats to report him to the police. In the age of the adult child, no actual adult seemed to care.

Springora describes how Matzneff sodomized her for months before her hymen was finally cut by a doctor.

The rape of “sexual minors,” or children under 15, is punished severely in France, though there is no fixed age of consent for sex. While Springora was still involved with him, she says in her book, Matzneff was investigated by France’s child-protection services upon their receipt of a string of anonymous letters. Springora speculates the denunciations, which contained information about them that few others could have known, were written by Matzneff himself, hoping to bond the two together against the world. It didn’t work because he was ultimately treated as a celebrity by the powers that be and left free to continue.

Consent is fuzzily conceptualized in French law—for rape to be rape, it requires violence, surprise, coercion, or threat; sex with minors gets a sterner look if there’s a very big age difference. And Matzneff, who understood the law very well, Springora writes, preciously guarded love letters from his victims as proof of their willingness.

Springora describes the two-year relationship as an annihilating loss of self that eventually, though temporarily, robbed her of her love of reading and writing. Though Matzneff sold himself as a mentor, he jealously guarded his role as the writer in the duo. The relationship between them finally ended when Springora dared to read his published journals, which he’d previously forbidden her, learned of his sex tourism, and confronted him. The writer had already isolated her from her family and friends, so his disapproval was devastating. His infidelity, with other barely pubescent girls, was the last straw. She talks about how, in the years that it took to reconstruct a functional life, she finally returned to books as a reader, and then professionally. Literature is everywhere in Le Consentement, but Springora tries to return it to its rightful place: not as an alibi, but still offering the possibility of transcendence.

Near the end of the book, Springora recounts a night in 1987 when she accompanied Matzneff to a taping of the TV talk show Apostrophes. By then 15, she wore makeup in his presence for the first time, and he was furious. Three years later, at that point gone from his life but still harassed by him constantly, Springora would find on that same show her only contemporary defender.

It wasn’t its host, Bernard Pivot, who has since apologized for “not having the words” to denounce his repeat guest, but the author Denise Bombardier, who would directly confront Matzneff. (In the last week, the clip of her denunciation may be the most watched on French Twitter. French speakers, it’s worth a look.) Presenting the panel for the evening, Pivot introduced Matzneff as “a real professor of sex education.” As all assembled tittered, and Matzneff launched into a self-congratulatory speech, Bombardier, who is Canadian, interjected. “I think I’m living on another planet.… What Mr. Matzneff is telling us in a book that I find boring in its repetitions … ” Matzneff then cut her off, asking her not to become “aggressive,” but she continued. “Mr. Matzneff tells us he sodomizes young girls aged 14 and 15, that these little girls are crazy about him. We know well that young girls can be crazy about a man with a certain literary aura. We know that old men attract children with candy. Mr. Matzneff attracts them with his reputation.”

Canadian writer Denise Bombardier confronts Matzneff on the talk show Apostrophe in 1987—a clash which had no immediate effect on Matzneff’s reputation.

Bombardier was insulted far and wide after speaking up, and said sales of her novel, Tremblement de Coeur, suffered because of it. Last week, in an interview with the Canadian newspaper Le Devoir, she recalled, “I was treated as frigid by everyone.” She recollected an article by Le Monde’s powerful book editor Josyane Savigneau about Matzneff, called “The Man Who Loved Love,” in which “she took my book and tore it to shreds. There was nothing left.”

Savigneau continues to defend Matzneff on social media, to enormous opprobrium, as the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut has done on TV. (He decried the social-media “pile on” against Matzneff on CNews on January 7. “We used to work to break taboos. Today we work to sanction outrage and break reputations.... The Springora case isn’t one of pedophilia. An adolescent and a child aren’t the same thing. There wasn’t rape. There was consent.”) Twitter outrage may seem like cold comfort for the disapproving, especially in light of such justifications, but it’s one of the few ways the cultural have-nots can now grab the mike in France.

A Clash of Civilizations

Could this be a gilet jaune moment for the rest of the country, whose value system never much matched up with the too-cool-for-school Parisians? If chat shows and social media for the last two weeks are to be believed, France’s enormous periphery, which always looked on agog at the post-1968 mores of Paris café society, has had it with their impunity. Jérôme Fourquet, director of the opinions-and-business-strategies wing of the national opinion survey IFOP, was asked by Le Figaro on January 3 if the Matzneff affair represented a return to the kind of moralism that ruled France before it shook off the oppressive shackles of the Catholic Church. It does not, he says. It’s simply a matter of fairness. “I’m seeing more an expression of a stronger demand for equality in terms of justice: the French want an end to get-out-of-jail-free cards and won’t tolerate any longer that one caste can pass through the net. We already saw this with the Strauss-Kahn affair, or in another realm, with the condemnation of pedophile priests.”

Suddenly, the most pampered intellectuals fear a reckoning. Cohn-Bendit, when asked about France’s tolerance for pedophilia on France 3, replied that he never abused any children, that he was trying to “shock the bourgeoisie” with his statements, and no one knew then that pedophilia was sexual abuse.

The penal code sure did, which makes Philippe Sollers, signatory to Matzneff’s petition and former editor in chief at Gallimard, a little confused. He explained his support of Matzneff to Libération on January 2 by saying that “pedophilia is a recent social phenomenon.” Frédéric Beigbeder, a novelist and the editor of the erotic magazine Lui, now apologizes for being part of the jury that awarded Matzneff the prestigious Renaudot Prize for essay-writing in 2013. Beigbeder, once a member of the Friends of Matzneff Society (yes, there was one), who has said Matzneff’s journals were “the masterworks in my library,” countered that they were celebrating a collection of his articles on international politics and philosophy, not his journals. “It wasn’t the consecration of a pedophile monster,” Beigbeder told Le Parisien last week. “The prize was clumsy,” but he’s stayed close with the writer “because I was afraid he was going to kill himself and I didn’t want to go after someone who was already being pilloried.” He now declares himself “unambiguously on team Springora.” She’ll be thrilled. It was the granting of the prize, after all, that finally triggered her enough to put pen to paper for the first time, she has said. Perhaps Beigbeder expects a thank-you.

Vanessa Springora, the author of Le Consentement, or “Consent,” the harrowing new memoir detailing her exploitation by Matzneff.

Who’s next? Will Jack Lang, now in charge of the Institut du Monde Arabe, face new questions over the Coral affair, a 1982 pedophilia scandal around an alternative school near Nîmes that briefly ensnared Lang, Matzneff, the philosopher René Schérer, and Michel Foucault, before falling apart in confusion? And one does hope sanity will reign, though will it? Will people reopen the loosely autobiographical sex-tourism novel Plateforme, by Michel Houellebecq, France’s most artful troll, with a newly jaundiced eye? The far right has long accused the late Pierre Bergé, partner of Yves Saint Laurent, of running a pedophile ring out of his Marrakech villa. Bergé is no longer around to defend himself.

Will people reopen the loosely autobiographical sex-tourism novel Plateforme, by Michel Houellebecq, France’s most artful troll, with a newly jaundiced eye?

Speculation aside, Springora, who deserves the last word, puts it best in Le Consentement: “If sexual relations between an adult and a minor younger than 15 are illegal, why this tolerance when they’re the result of someone representing an elite—photographer, writer, filmmaker, painter? You have to believe an artist belongs to a separate caste, a being with superior values to whom we offer all-powerful mandate without any conditions except that their production be an original and subversive work, a sort of aristocracy holding exceptional privileges in light of which our judgement, in a state of blind befuddlement, should disappear.” Thanks to her, it no longer will.

Alexandra Marshall is an Air Mail Editor at Large based in Paris

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