What do you call a guy who can openly celebrate his sexual relations with children in books and on TV without being prosecuted?
A giant of French literature.
Things are different in France, or have been until recently for elite figures in the cultural establishment. One of those figures, Gabriel Matzneff, is a feted novelist, a winner of numerous literary prizes who appeared many times on France’s top cultural TV show of the 1970s and 80s, Apostrophes. Back in the day, he wrote: “Once you have held, kissed, caressed, possessed a 13-year-old boy, a girl of 15, everything else seems bland, heavy, insipid.” One of those minors was a girl who met him at 13 and was his lover at 14; now, at 47, she has given France a #MeToo moment, denouncing the man she once fell for in a sensational book, Le Consentement (Consent). It is flying off the shelves, quickly selling out at Amazon and needing seven re-prints in only three weeks.
That girl, that woman, is Vanessa Springora, these days head of the prestigious Paris publishing house Éditions Julliard, a position giving her the ear of the media and hence immense personal power to pursue a vendetta: Le Consentement has been all over the press and Springora has done the rounds of the TV shows.
What, then, is her complaint? We see no bad behaviour along the lines of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual coercion. She has admitted she wanted sex and consented to it with Matzneff. The Washington Post’s version says that “for the teenage Springora, Matzneff was the 50-year-old for whom she developed a schoolgirl crush after her mother, who worked in publishing, dragged her to a dinner party. There, she met and was bowled over by the writer who seemed to have eyes only for her.” After that, we hear, “he then set about grooming her”.
But it has to be asked, who was grooming whom? Vanessa’s mother had been a press officer for her firm. She would certainly have been alert to the potential for giving her daughter excellent prospects in the business by “dragging” her to glamorous parties where she could meet famous writers, making contacts that could be hugely advantageous later on. And so it turned out. After an elite private education at the lycée Fénelon and the Sorbonne, Vanessa went on to enjoy a glittering career, to which her early association with the great Matzneff would certainly have added lustre, making her a person of note and allure. It is not as though the relationship was ever hidden: he shared with her his Parisian life in the literary world; she joined him for dinners, visits and interviews, presumably without needing to be “dragged” along.
Not that the relationship lasted. Springora broke away from Matzneff when she was 15. “Are you sure?” her mother reportedly asked her, “He adores you.”
The problem, for young Vanessa, was that he apparently adored lots of other girls her age as well. And boys. Reportedly, it was Matzneff’s own writings that did it. While he was away on a trip, she read his torrid accounts of sex with other youngsters, works he had told her not to look at. They killed her illusions that their relationship was an exclusive and special romance.“His books were populated by other 15-year-old Lolitas,” Springora writes. “This man was no good. He was, in fact, what we are taught to fear from childhood: an ogre.”
If he deceived her, that would have been caddish indeed. Very reprehensible. But he had not been not such an ogre, it seems, that she ever felt it necessary to go to the police, even later in life, over a relationship of a kind now being rebranded by victim feminists around the world as “rape”. She claims that what pushed her into writing her account of their relationship was her disgust over his reception speech upon winning the Renaudot literary prize in 2013. The prize is awarded for new novels, but Matzneff claimed it was for all his work over the years, which included his early celebration of sex with minors, in works such as his essay Les moins de seize ans (The Under Sixteens) – published in 1974 by, ironically, the company she now directs, Éditions Julliard! He wrote:
What captivates me is less a particular sex than extreme youth, that which extends from the tenth to the sixteenth year and which seems to me to be – much more than what is usually meant by this expression – the true third sex … In my view extreme youth alone forms a particular, unique sex.
He described sex with children as “a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure”, and deplored the fact that the “erotic charm of the young boy” is denied by modern Western society, adding that “the two most sensual beings I have known in my life are a boy of twelve and a girl of fifteen”. In 1990, he published Mes amours décomposés, his diary for the years 1983-1984, in which he admitted engaging in sex tourism in the Philippines, picking up “little boys of eleven or twelve years”.
One can well imagine that being obliged to compete with enterprising street urchins would be an intolerable humiliation for many women. Even so, I am sceptical over her explanation. She claims her indignation and ire were provoked in 2013. Why then, did it take until 2020 to write her slim book of only 216 pages and get it published? She is a publisher after all: how hard could it have been?
My guess is that a stronger motivation for her to go public came much later, starting with the Me Too movement, with its explosion of public discourse not only on sexual harassment and rape but also on the meaning of sexual consent. Victim feminists have been increasingly insistent on the need for “affirmative consent”; “rape” has been re-defined much more broadly in the UK and elsewhere to include a range of physical acts that were never traditionally considered rape; consensual sex with minors is now called rape.
It is no accident that Springora’s book is called Consent. She claims to have been manipulated, reportedly speaking of “the frightening ambiguity in which the consenting, loving victim is placed”. It seems, in other words, that her aim is to seize the moment, cashing in on a Paris court case that she must have known, with her sophistication and publishing experience, put her in prime position to surf the victim culture zeitgeist by exploiting the very concept of consent itself – a concept under unprecedented scrutiny and pressure, especially in the Anglophone world but also beginning to stir in France. The Paris case gripped the public’s attention in the autumn of 2017, coinciding almost exactly with the start of #MeToo in America.
What shocked the French public, we are told, was a story about an incident in the Paris suburb of Montmagny. A girl aged 11 willingly had oral and vaginal sex with a man of 28 and told her mother about it later the same day. The mother immediately called the police, expecting that the guy would be charged with rape. But no. The public prosecutor said there had been “no violence, no coercion, no threat, no surprise”. The girl had consented.
From outraged media coverage around the world, it might have been supposed that France had suddenly woken up to find that instead of having an age of consent set at 15, as it thought, it actually had no AOC at all. It was presented as though a perpetrator was going to get away with his “predatory” deeds entirely.
Propagandist crap! Sure, the villain of the piece could not be charged with rape, which was the only charge that would satisfy the victim feminists. But because the girl was under 15 the man was still in the frame for a charge of “sexual infraction”, punishable at that time by a prison sentence of up to five years. This was played down to the point of invisibility, as though the worst he could get would be hardly more severe than a typical parking fine.
Nonsense it may have been, but this media pressure had the desired effect, leading to a tough new law in 2018. Not that you would know it from the impression given by the media in the UK and US. Britain’s Independent ran two headlines, “France votes against setting minimum age of sexual consent amid backlash” and “President Macron accused of missing opportunity to protect minors”. Further into the story we hear “there is still no law establishing a legal age of sexual consent in France”.
Fake news! While it is true that the legislators declined to say minors under 15 could never consent, if the threshold for rape was not met judges could now classify the incident as “sexual assault” and offenders would face a prison sentence of up to 10 years. Also, if “the victim lacks the ability to consent” the offence would be classified as rape, with a sentence of up to 20 years.
A day after Springora’s book hit stores, French prosecutors announced that they were opening an investigation into “rape committed on a minor under 15” related to the allegations in Le Consentement. The publishing house Gallimard, which released Matzneff’s latest book in November, has halted sales of his work. The Kindle version of Les moins de seize ans is no longer available on Amazon, and we are told Matzneff could lose a state pension for writers that he has received since 2002.
It must all be getting a bit traumatic for the literary superstar, now aged 83 and perhaps utterly bewildered by what must be an unexpected fall from grace after getting away with so much for so long – in terms of candid revelations at least, rather than serious crimes, of which he appears to be entirely innocent. We might expect him, as an old man, to be rather stuck in the culture of the past, which in France has long meant that the concept of “literary licence” has been extended not just to what writers write but also to an exceptional degree of freedom in their lifestyle.
So where was this French exceptionalism coming from? How did they ever come to be given such a free pass to be “immoral”, as many would have thought, or “perverted”?
Well, the moralists could start by blaming the French Revolution, which swept away the old criminal laws and in 1791 a new code was introduced that deliberately focused on “real crimes”, excluding moralistic old offences such as incest, bestiality and homosexuality, which were decriminalised. And there was no AOC. Not that the revolutionaries were entirely easy-going: if you destroyed evidence of someone’s marital status you could be clapped in irons for 12 years! Napoleon’s much longer-lasting penal code of 1810 did not include an AOC either. It specified rape or any other indecent assault committed with violence as criminal offences but said nothing about non-violent sexual acts with children, so these were legal. Very sensible!
The spoilsports eventually got their act together though. In 1832 a new law specified that indecent assault on a child of either sex, under the age of 11, without violence, was an offence. So this was at last an AOC; the age was raised to 13 in 1863 and 15 in 1945. Interestingly, though, the courts have at times resisted applying the law. For instance, Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu cites the case of Nicolas B., accused of indecent assault on his 5-year-old niece, who in 1865 benefited from extenuating circumstances on the grounds that his victim had not been deflowered. However, as the man was charged with a non-violent attack and not with rape, the question of defloration should not have arisen. As recently as 2015 (following a recasting of the entire penal code in 1994), the Constitutional Council reasserted that French law “does not set an age of discernment in regards to sexual relations: It is for the courts to determine whether the minor was capable of consenting to the sexual relationship in question.”
At all events, the low AOC in the early part of the 20th century gave plenty of scope for writers such as Henry de Montherlant and André Gide to indulge and write about their sexual tastes for young boys without fear, thereby setting the tone for post-war writers – a permissive tone that found more general expression in the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, supported by such immense figures as Sartre and Foucault.
By the 1970s, backing for children’s sexual freedom had become fashionable, at least in the intellectual world, and the middle of that decade saw books by no less than four major authors cheer-leading for paedophilia – including their own. One of them was Metzneff, as already noted. Another was the philosopher René Schérer, whose 1974 essay Émile perverti supported pederastic relations between teachers and pupils. A third was Tony Duvert, who won the Medici prize in 1973 and the following year his first openly paedophilic essay appeared, Le Bon Sex Illustré.
Finally, we have the most internationally famous of them all, the Franco-German firebrand Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who shot to prominence in the great student protests of 1968 as a leftist revolutionary dubbed “Danny the Red”. In later years re-invented himself as an elected politician, leading both the German and French Green parties and becoming a leading member of the European Parliament. This successful track record was amazingly achieved despite his extraordinary chapter in a 1975 book called Le Grand Bazar, devoted to “the sexuality of children”, in which he spoke of his interactions with little children when he had been a kindergarten assistant in Frankfurt the previous year. It included incidents in which, as he put it, they would open his flies and tickle him, and he would caress them. He also appeared on Apostrophes in 1982, saying: “You know that the sexuality of a kid is absolutely fantastic…. When a little girl, five years old, starts to undress you, it’s fantastic! It’s fantastic because it’s an absolutely erotomanic game!”
These early indiscretions have come back to haunt him from time to time, but simply by denying any paedophilic interest in children he has managed to avoid any really damaging scandal. I don’t think he would have got away with it in the US or UK.
Perhaps the most high-profile contribution by the French intellectuals in these years, though, came in the form of petitions in 1977 issued after a trial that saw three men jailed for non-violent sex offences against children aged 12 and 13.
“Three years in prison for caresses and kisses: enough is enough,” one petition said. Incredibly, among the 69 signatures were those of two government ministers, Bernard Kouchner and Jack Lang.
“French law recognises in 12- and 13-year-olds a capacity for discernment that it can judge and punish,” said a second petition signed by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, along with fellow intellectuals Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida; a leading child psychologist, Françoise Dolto; and writers Philippe Sollers, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Louis Aragon. “But it rejects such a capacity when the child’s emotional and sexual life is concerned. It should acknowledge the right of children and adolescents to have relations with whomever they choose.”
That was the place! Those were the days!
I made a rare post on BoyChat yesterday, following a thread there in which the recently deceased philosopher Roger Scruton was discussed and mention was made of my critique of his work. One or two people had put in a good word for Scruton. Nothing wrong with that. I am all in favour of fair and balanced assessments but it did seem to me that they had forgotten just what a nasty piece of work the great man himself could be. So I put in my own two penn’orth here.
One thing I didn’t mention is that even as a father the old reactionary might be a bit of a bastard, if we are to take him at his word (though we probably can’t!) Back in 1999, when his son was a baby, Professor Scruton penned a piece in the Guardian on his plans for the boy’s upbringing, titled “Raising Master Scruton”. He wrote:
…my wife Sophie and I have decided to offer Sam a genuinely deprived childhood… It goes without saying that Sam will not enjoy his childhood…But that is not the point. Childhood is not an end in itself but a means to growing up…
The most important factor in the old systems of education, the factor which caused children to emerge from them with all their wildness and selfishness subdued, was religion. Sam is to get a good dose of this. His parents are Christians.
It sounds as though Sam, now into his twenties, might be dancing on his dad’s grave! I have a horrible suspicion, though, that he is a chip off the old block: it appears he studied theology at Oxford. And if he has done a jig atop his old man’s sod it would have been after reading from St John’s gospel at the funeral.