‘To die of love’: The 1968 sex scandal that still fascinates France
A 1968 student-teacher scandal continues to resonate in France five decades on
Illustration: Getty Images
“I am going to make you love literature,” Gabrielle Russier told her first students at the lycée Nord Marseille in September 1967. Russier had married young and had twins. She returned to university to obtain her teaching diploma and was in the process of divorcing.
Russier sought to replicate with her students the close friendships she had developed with her own professors at the University of Aix. She addressed students by their first names and the familiar “tu”. They were enchanted.
In the minds of many, Russier’s love affair with Christian Rossi, a student half her age, came to embody the May ’68 revolution and the backlash that followed. It is a sign of the enduring fascination of the story that Le Monde newspaper recently published a 12-page series of articles about it, based on 120 interviews and more than a year’s research.
The series, by justice correspondent Pascale Robert-Diard and documentary film-maker Joseph Beauregard, will be published as a book titled Comprenne qui voudra (Understand if you will) next March.
Russier and a dozen students formed a tightly knit band of friends. They would pile into her red Citroën Dyane, decorated with flower-power decals and nicknamed the Tortoise of Liberty. She drove them to her apartment in Aix, 40km away, to discuss politics and poetry, and listen to vinyl records of Serge Gainsbourg, Léo Ferré, Georges Moustaki and Serge Reggiani. The group went bowling and on ski trips together. Russier was petite, with short, dark hair. People often mistook her for a student.
No one is certain when Gabrielle and Christian became lovers, though it was probably around the time workers and students began occupying factories and university campuses in May 1968. With his tall build and broad shoulders, beard and moustache, Rossi appeared older than his 16 years.
When the band of friends saw Russier and Rossi holding hands and kissing during demonstrations, they adopted a protective attitude towards their teacher and class-mate. In subsequent months, the students would hide Christian and ferry messages between the lovers. The couple seemed to be living out slogans exhorting them to “Take life” “Liberate passion” and “Enjoy unhindered”.
Rossi would light two gauloises bleues cigarettes at a time for himself and Russier. She shortened his name to Chris, and because of his Mediterranean looks turned “le métèque”, a pejorative term for immigrants, into a term of endearment. He called her “gatito” or kitten. They mourned the death of Che Guevara together. “Remember the children of Vietnam and Cuba,” Russier wrote to Rossi at Christmas.
Christian’s parents, Mario and Marguerite Rossi, were professors at the University of Aix. Marguerite had taught Russier, and congratulated her when she graduated with honours. Despite their left-wing politics and support for the May revolution, the Rossis objected to the romance. “Stay away from my son!” Mario warned Gabrielle.
In July 1968, Christian told his parents he was hitch-hiking to Italy. Gabrielle picked him up in Nice. In Rome, they added another bumper sticker to her red car, summarising the ethos of the period: “Fatte l’amore non la guerra.”
Rossi went on a student exchange to Germany in August. Russier went to fetch him. The couple holed up in her apartment at the end of the summer. She moved to a tower block overlooking the motorway in Marseilles, to be near him. Russier naively believed she could persuade Rossi’s parents to let them live together.
In October, Russier and Rossi drove to the Rossi home for a chat with his parents. Unknown to the lovers, the Rossis had just learned about their trips to Germany and Italy. An angry Mario Rossi ordered his son into the house. Russier was flustered, hit a wall and took off at full throttle.
The Rossis hired a lawyer and consulted the prosecutor. They transferred Christian to a lycée in Argelès-Gazost, 585km away. The Marseilles police trailed Russier when she drove there at the end of October. Rossi cycled to meet her under pouring rain. As the couple embraced inside her car, gendarmes tapped at the window. They took Rossi back to his lycée by force. He ran away. The Rossis filed charges against Russier for kidnapping and corrupting a minor.
A quarter century later, the parents of Emmanuel Macron summoned his drama teacher, Brigitte Auzière, to their home in Amiens. The difference in ages between the future president and first lady was greater – nearly 25 years, compared to 15 years between Russier and Rossi. A tearful Auzière refused to stop seeing the teenage Macron, but his parents did not contemplate pressing charges. The sad example of Gabrielle Russier may have deterred them.
Russier was twice jailed in Marseilles’s infamous Les Baumettes prison. Both times, she was used as a hostage to put pressure on Rossi. Judge Bernard Palanque ordered her held for six days in December 1968 because Rossi’s parents wanted to know where he was.
Rossi was sent to a juvenile detention centre, then to a psychiatric hospital. He escaped, was reunited with Russier, reapprehended and heavily sedated for three weeks.
“Remember our agreement,” Rossi wrote to Russier. “We mustn’t worry and we mustn’t grow old. I’m not sure exactly what they want, but if it’s to make me forget they can wait. Ti amo per sempre.”
In April 1969, Russier was arrested a second time, after Rossi ran away from his grandmother in Montpellier to see her. She was imprisoned for seven weeks, during which Judge Palanque slated her for trial in July.
“I have told you. I have written it to you. I will not leave you,” Russier wrote to Rossi from Les Baumettes. “Even if these prison bars separate us. Even if death separated us. If I stay here, I will write our story, to talk to you, to fight the temptation to gradually give up the energy to live, the energy to smile.”
The following year, Raymond Jean, who had supervised Russier’s thesis on the Nouveau Roman at the University of Aix, would publish her cries for help to friends, colleagues, her ex-husband and her father, under the title Letters from Prison. The texts provide a haunting record of Russier’s spiral into depression.
Russier was convicted on July 11th, 1969. “It is obvious that the accused abused the power she had over this young man, and that through her obstinance she destabilised him to the point of endangering his future,” judges wrote.
Despite the harsh words, the 12-month suspended prison sentence and 1,500 franc fine were lenient. Georges Pompidou had just been elected, and Russier was eligible for the traditional post-election presidential amnesty.
But the prosecutor, in collusion with education officials, appealed immediately for a harsher sentence. “In the summer of 1969, French society, the institutions, those who were at the top of their careers, were still reeling from the May ’68 revolution,” says Robert-Diard. “The France of de Gaulle and Pompidou was afraid that society would collapse. They wanted to make an example of Russier.”
In her memoir The Years, which was shortlisted for last year’s International Man Booker prize, French writer Annie Ernaux dwells at length on the May ’68 revolution, which she, like Russier, experienced as a moment of liberation. It “avenged us for our fettered adolescence,” Ernaux wrote. “We were as shattered by the suicide of Gabrielle Russier as by that of a long-lost sister.”
Russier dreaded the impending second trial. She was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. “Human wickedness . . . thrives everywhere, among enlightened academics as well as scandal-mongering concierges,” the Nouvel Observateur commented.
Russier left the psychiatric hospital on August 30th, returned to her tower block in Marseilles, stuffed rags around doors and windows, opened the gas pipe and swallowed sleeping pills. Her only mistake, wrote Raymond Jean, was “having confused life and literature”.
In his only interview, with the Nouvel Observateur when he turned 21, Christian Rossi said he could not pardon his parents. His affair with Russier “was not a passion, it was love”, Rossi said. “The memories she left me, she left for me. I am not going to recount them.”
Rossi became a farmer, married and had children.
A few years ago, Russier’s daughter Valérie wrote to Rossi, offering to give him Gabrielle’s home movies of their summer together. He wrote back: “This period of my life is a secret garden that I never enter, though I live with it. You must know that it is very difficult, if not impossible, for me to stir these memories.”
French media blamed Rossi’s parents and the education and justice systems for Russier’s death. Asked about the case at a press conference three weeks later, President Pompidou paused a long moment, then recited a stanza of Paul Eluard’s poem Understand if you will. In it, the Communist poet expressed compassion for women whose heads were shaven for having slept with German soldiers during the second World War. Eluard had been struck by a woman “with the look of a lost child . . . who resembled those who die for love”.
Director André Cayatte made a feature film, To Die of Love, which was seen by six million people. Charles Aznavour recorded a hit song with the same title. The Paris Museum of Modern Art mounted an exhibition titled Who kills? The Gabrielle Russier Affair.
Could lovers be hounded in the same way today? By the mid-1970s, the May ’68 revolution had seeped into French society. Unconventional relationships became widely accepted.
But in recent years, teenagers have come to be seen as fragile persons in need of protection, notes Robert-Diard. Consent has become “the sine qua non of morality in sexual relations”, says the Franco-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz. Some doubt an adolescent can understand the full meaning of consent.
Under the double standard of the late 1960s, no one objected to male professors having sex with female students. Such relationships are now frowned upon regardless of the older person’s gender.
But the age differential, whereby older men have affairs with younger women but the inverse happens rarely, remains deeply ingrained. Illouz says the phenomenon is a sign of male domination, says Illouz. “Just look at entries on dating websites. They often say ‘65-year-old man seeks woman between 40 and 55’. There is absolutely no embarrassment about it.”
Robert-Diard and Beauregard’s investigative report does not mention the Macrons, but she admits their story “hovers over” the Russier saga.
Foreigners are fascinated by the age difference between Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron. “I have always found Macron exceedingly sympathique, for that reason,” says Illouz. “His loyalty to a woman who does not correspond to the stereotype of the trophy wife is remarkable.”
Yet Macron is dogged by allegations of homosexuality (during the 2017 presidential campaign, rumours were so persistent that Macron made a humorous public denial). “These rumours show people find it difficult to believe that a man can love an older woman and be faithful to her,” Ilouz says. “Rumours about alleged homosexuality are a way of delegitimising their relationship.”