The French budget minister Gérald Darmanin has come under pressure to resign after Le Monde newspaper revealed he is under preliminary investigation for allegedly coercing a former prostitute into having sex with him.
"Taking account of the seriousness of the accusations against him . . . we think he has no other choice but to resign," said Laurence Saillet, a spokesperson for the opposition conservative party Les Républicains (LR).
There may be an element of political revenge in the call for Darmanin's resignation. Until last May, the 35-year-old cabinet minister had made his entire political career with LR. He was one of three LR officials, along with prime minister Edouard Philippe and finance minister Bruno Le Maire, who left the conservatives to work for President Emmanuel Macron.
Sophie Spatz, a former prostitute, says she was "hysterical" when she saw Darmanin's appointment announced on television. She went to the Élysée with her dog, in the hope of being arrested, so she could tell her story. Spatz called police four times, but then refused to go to a police station to be questioned, so the case was closed in July. Her husband Pierre wrote to the justice minister outlining her version of events. His letter circulated among journalists and on the internet.
On January 15th, Darmanin told France Info radio that he was thinking of giving up everything to open a wine bar in Italy, because he had received death threats and because of a "disgusting, defamatory letter" accusing him of abusing power, "even rape".
The Harvey Weinstein/#MeToo phenomenon appears to have prompted Sophie and Pierre Spatz to reopen the case. They consulted the feminist Caroline De Haas, who led the backlash to a letter signed by Catherine Deneuve and 100 other women and which defended men's "right to importune" women.
De Haas told the couple that Darmanin’s alleged actions constituted rape, even if he “didn’t rip her clothes off”. She referred them to a lawyer who specialises in cases of sexual harassment and aggression. The lawyer says Spatz was “coerced by surprise” into having sexual relations with Darmanin. On January 25th, Spatz was questioned by police for eight hours.
Darmanin has so far refused to give his version of events. As recounted by Spatz, she was desperate to have her police record cleared of a 2004 conviction for threats, blackmail and ill-intentioned phone calls against a former boyfriend whom she accused of stealing money she kept in her apartment for a third person.
Darmanin was 26 and Spatz was 37 when they met in 2009. She had married a financial technician, given up prostitution and joined the UMP party, before it changed its name to LR. Spatz made an appointment to see Darmanin, who was a legal adviser at party headquarters. She was thrilled when he promised to write to the justice minister, who was also from the UMP, in support of her request to clear her record. She says he telephoned her half an hour later to invite her to dinner. "I had left my file with him, so he knew my former profession," she told Le Monde.
Despite warnings from her husband, Spatz went to dinner with Darmanin at Chez Françoise, a restaurant frequented by politicians and government officials, on March 17th, 2009. She paid the bill with her credit card.
“At one point, he moved close to me. He put his hand on mine. He said, ‘You will have to help me too.’ I understood immediately what that meant,” Spatz said. “I was a hostage. I told myself I had no choice, that I’d have my letter [to the justice minister] the next day.”
Spatz says Darmanin insisted on taking her to Les Chandelles, a swingers’ club once frequented by the former International Monetary Fund director Domnique Strauss-Kahn, then to a hotel. She returned home early the next morning. Her husband said she was “sitting on the ground, her back against the wall, prostrate”.
Police are studying an exchange of text messages which indicate that Spatz pleaded with Darmanin to write the promised letter. He eventually did so, eight months later. She nonetheless complained to the party, who told her she could file a lawsuit if she wanted to.
After Le Monde published its investigation, the government issued a statement saying Darmanin enjoyed its "full confidence". But the élysée has remained silent. An online petition by a feminist group demanding Darmanin's resignation was signed by 3,241 people by mid-afternoon on Monday.