Appearance and Reality in Saint-Germain-des-Près in the 1980s

The publication of three books within a year, all involving the well-off and famous in Saint-Germain-des-Près has come as a shock in France and the repercussions are devastating. 

Tongues are loosened in the wake of the #metoo movement. 

Last year, on 2 January 2020, the book by Vanessa SpringoraLe Consentement’ was published.

It immediately triggered huge attention and hype from the media and the Parisian intelligentsia. So much so that it became an unavoidable topic at diners among friends… and an instant bestseller! ‘Le Consentement’ was recently translated by Natasha Lehrer under the title ‘Consent, a Memoir’.

Again, this year, on 7 January 2021, an air of déjà vu struck in the printing world.

The publication of the book by Camille KouchnerLa Familia Grande’ caused the same turmoil, the same reactions that spread like wildfire. 

The Mitterrand years

However, analogies between both books go beyond this observation and the fact they unveil a 35-year-old well-kept secret of child sexual abuse. 

The ‘crimes’ referred to in both books happened at the same time, in the late 1980s, when François Mitterrand was President of France. They also took place in the same area: within the boundaries of Saint-Germain-des-Près / The Latin Quarter.

You know it well… this most desired (and expensive) neighborhood where the intellectuals and the politicians from all sides grab a coffee at Café de l’Odéon. You may cross paths the same day, while window shopping on rue Madame, with Catherine Deneuve, philosopher Bernard-Henry Levy or former PM Lionel Jospin.

Power, fame, and/or money are the common denominators of these people. Their points of view, their declarations are often considered Gospel. 

The rise and fall of the famous 

That’s why both books made the headlines and became sensations overnight.

They deal with protagonists most French people would have already heard of and regard as morally irreproachable.

  • In ‘Consent, a Memoir’, the predator is Gabriel Matzneff who is/was* an established writer, Vanessa Springora is a 14-year-old girl who one day confides her sorrow to Emil Cioran, the Romanian-born philosopher who lived in the Latin Quarter.
  • Similarly and even more impressive in ‘La Familia Grande’, the accused of rape of the author’s twin brother is Olivier Duhamel, University Professor, and politician. Duhamel is married to Evelyne Pisier, sister of actress Marie-France Pisier and ex-wife of Bernard Kouchner, politician, and co-founder of ‘Médecins Sans Frontières’ & ‘Médecins du Monde’.

Their victims were at hand: in the circle of her mother’s friends for Vanessa, at home, his stepfather, for the young Kouchner. 

Keeping up with appearances

The silence and the connivance of the mothers, their next-of-kin and their close relations, the strong influential personality of the perpetrators, and the age of the victims (14) generally account for the omerta that ensued.

Added to that, the mainstream ideology, hardly understandable nowadays, that permitted Le Monde to naively publish in 1977 an open letter signed by a list of prominent intellectuals in defense of sexual relations between adults and children! Signatures included Simone de Beauvoir, Louis Aragon, Roland Barthes, Bernard Kouchner (!).

Things always go in 3s

Another book, published on 15 September 2020, could also feature alongside ‘Consent, a Memoir’  and ‘La Familia Grande’. However, its literary approach is quite different and the wrongdoings less serious (though this may be argued).

In ‘Le Temps Gagné’ by Raphaël Enthoven, the philosopher and writer claims and insists his narrative is fiction based on real facts, therefore it is not a memoir.

  • Yet the story is a recollection of events that took place during his childhood, at the same time and place as the other two.
  • It, too, involves known people of the literary circles (his father is the writer Jean-Paul Enthoven), and a stepfather, a shrink by profession, who spends his time belittling him and slapping his face too easily. Young Raphaël  Enthoven is confronted with the silence of a mother and the cowardice of a father in the same unbearable fashion. 

Epilogue, other times, other customs

As of today Raphaël Enthoven is being sued by his ex-stepfather, and his father has cut all ties with him.

There is a cost to truth.

Olivier Duhamel and Gabriel Matzneff are treated as outcasts and can’t appear in public.

  • The latter has written a sort of pamphlet in response to Vanessa Springora’s Memoir but was turned down by all possible publishers.
  • Olivier Duhamel has resigned from all his positions. 
  • Even though these offenses are outside the statute of limitation for criminal charges, Paris prosecutors have opened an investigation into the allegations.
  • And last but not least, a new law has just passed that considers sexual relationships with minors aged 15 and under, to be rape.

‘Consent, a Memoir’ by Vanessa Springora is the My French Life™ bookclub February-March read. You’re welcome to leave a message below if you’re interested in reading it with us… Or make a comment on this article.

NOTE for those who are reading Consent, a Memoir with the MyFrenchLife bookclub. We have prepared a form by which you can collaborate and contribute to the discussion and then see the responses of all other readers as well. Please join us in this discussion.
Here is the link to the discussion form:

*Gabriel Matzneff is not as famous now as a writer as he was in the 80s.

Image Credits:
1- 3 inclusive — book covers
4-5 le Café de l’Odéon—
6 book cover

About the Contributor

Jacqueline Dubois Pasquier

After teaching for 20 years abroad, I mostly live now in Paris, where I feel both like a native and an expat. I enjoy being part of My French Life™ as it makes my life in Paris even more meaningful and special. I have a passion for literature and movies. I share my thoughts in my blog and on twitter.”

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