Far-left French MP Adrien Quatennens didn’t just risk his career when he confessed to hitting his wife during their breakup. It also sparked a series of infighting that weakened the left-wing alliance just as it tried to challenge President Emmanuel Macron.
The revelation sparked a real crisis when far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, 71, came to the defense of his former protege, hailing “his dignity and his courage”, shortly after Quatennens’ wife filed a complaint against him with the police. Further damage was done to Mélenchon’s coalition when a prominent Greens figure accused Green party leader Julien Bayou of psychologically abusing a former girlfriend.
The events undermined the momentum the Nupes alliance had built after winning 147 seats in the National Assembly elections in June, making it the largest opposition bloc. With the new parliamentary session starting this week, the group made up of La France Insoumise de Mélenchon, Socialists, Communists and Greens is losing credibility with voters and counting with its own #MeToo moment on its handling of allegations of misconduct.
“It’s incredible the number of left-wing personalities who have been harmed by this,” said Gaël Sliman, who heads the Odoxa polling institute. “This is good news for Macron because his most vocal opponents have been discredited.”
Mélenchon’s popularity has slipped eight points over the past month among Nupes supporters, many of whom are young voters, and six points among the population as a whole, according to an Odoxa poll.
It’s not just those accused of misconduct and their support that have seen their popularity decline. Sandrine Rousseau, the ecologist deputy who relayed the accusation against Bayou on television, saw her favorable audiences drop as much.
Bayou, who strongly denies any wrongdoing in what his lawyer called a bad breakup, has resigned as party leader. He and Quatennens said they would “step back” from frontline duties but remain MPs.
The backlash was all the stronger because the left had made the fight against sexism a political mission. LFI and the Greens were among the first parties to set up internal disciplinary committees to receive reports of alleged misconduct. Leaders including Quatennens, 32, pleaded for giving more credence to the women’s accusations and urged police to take domestic violence more seriously.
Lou Toussaint, a 23-year-old feminist who ran unsuccessfully in the legislative elections as an LFI candidate in June, said it was “disturbing” to see Mélenchon congratulate someone who admitted committing domestic violence . “I was hoping that as a movement that loudly supports feminist values, we would respond in a way that reflects this fight,” she added.
Since the start of the #MeToo movement five years ago, many French film, media and academic institutions have come under fire for protecting powerful men who abused their positions but did not subject to any sanction for their actions.
The ruling has extended to the country’s predominantly male political class, where disagreements within parties over how to handle allegations of misconduct persist. Some argue that the reports should only be handled by the judicial system, while others argue that the judicial process is slow and flawed, so politicians should be held to higher ethical standards for their conduct.
Macron has fought for a cohesive response to allegations of wrongdoing against members of his cabinet.
In May, two women accused Minister Damien Abad of rape, one of them claiming to have drugged her, in alleged events that took place more than a decade ago. He denied any wrongdoing and was removed from his post in June when the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation. Macron also backed Gerald Darmanin when he was charged with rape in 2017, charges the minister disputed and prosecutors decided not to pursue. He was promoted to Home Secretary in 2020.
Politicians from Mélenchon’s party, who have attacked Macron for his handling of Abad and Darmanin, have been criticized for defending Quatennens. Deputy Manuel Bompard drew anger when he declared on CNews: “A slap is not the same as a man who beats his wife every day and a slap is not the same as someone who is accused of rape after drugging his victim”.
The crisis is testing the unity of the new left alliance and Mélenchon’s status as its de facto leader.
“I don’t see how I could work with Bompard or Mélenchon in the years to come,” said Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, elected ecologist for mayor of Paris.
However, Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure said he saw no reason for a private matter such as the Quatennens affair to threaten the movement while Rousseau, the Green MP, refrained from harshly criticizing Mélenchon. “He still has work to do, but given his position as [Nupes] chief, I would be the first to welcome him if he evolved.
But Rousseau herself was criticized by Bayou, who claimed in an interview with Le Monde on Tuesday that “she went too far: feminism cannot be confused with McCarthyism”. The Greens had already been wronged by a Liberation investigation which revealed that a group of feminist activists had been monitoring Bayou for years and questioning his ex-girlfriends.
Bayou also defended the party’s disciplinary commissions, saying they are necessary because the French justice system does not do enough to support women who complain of harassment. “The internal committee aimed to meet a main need: to stop the denial of violence,” he said.
Still, Rousseau said she spoke out in part because the Greens’ investigation had not moved forward. For her, it proved that institutional changes were needed so that parties could finally deal with allegations of misconduct against powerful figures in a transparent and fair way.
“We need an independent body to carry out these investigations outside the parties,” she added.
Additional reporting by Leila Abboud