Griveaux sex scandal threatens to reshape France’s relationship with Russia
Questions raised over whether Russian artist acted alone in publishing tape of Macron ally
Benjamin Griveaux is pictured as he announces his withdrawal from the Paris mayoral campaign at AFP headquarters in Paris, France. Photograph: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images
New details have emerged regarding the Franco-Russian couple accused of publishing the sex tape that sabotaged the mayoral candidacy of Benjamin Griveaux, Emmanuel Macron’s choice for mayor of Paris, on February 14th.
Though there is no evidence of official Russian collusion in the scandal, French media has suggested there might be a link between the vendetta against Griveaux and the French president, who gave his most accusatory outburst against Vladimir Putin’s Russia in 2½ years at a security conference in Munich at the weekend.
The Russian political refugee Piotr Pavlenski (36) and his French girlfriend, Alexandra de Taddeo (29), are in police custody in France on charges of violating Griveaux’s privacy and spreading images of a sexual nature without his agreement. If convicted, they face up to two years in prison and a €60,000 fine.
Griveaux filed a suit against Pavlenski and De Taddeo, and two other people who posted tweets promoting the video and erotic texts that Griveaux sent to De Taddeo in May 2018. Pavlenski had published the material on his now-blocked website, pornopolitique.com.
Pavlenski calls himself a political performance artist, and became famous in Russia for self-mutilation, ostensibly in protest against Putin’s abuse of power.
Between 2013 and 2017, Pavlenski nailed his scrotum to the paving stones of Red Square, sewed his lips together, cut off an ear in front of the psychiatric institute where dissidents were interned, and set fire to the doors of the Lubyanka building, headquarters of the FSB security agency.
Yet Russian authorities were surprisingly lenient with Pavlenski. He reportedly left Russia not on political grounds, but because Russian police warned him that he was about to be arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a 23-year-old actor and beating up her ex-boyfriend.
Pavlenski was granted political asylum in France in 2017. His former lawyer, Dominique Beyreuther-Minkov, told Le Monde: “When one sups with the devil, one needs a long spoon . . . I heard that Putin laughed when [Pavlenski] left Russia, but I don’t know if it’s true.”
Griveaux’s lawyer Richard Malka and government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye both said they believed Pavlenski had not acted alone. The publication of the video, which reportedly showed Griveaux masturbating, was a classic case of kompromat, or compromising dossiers, a practice honed by Putin when he headed Russian intelligence.
De Taddeo is described by French media as the daughter of rich parents, an intelligent student of law and political science who became fascinated with far-left politics. She is fluent in five languages, including Russian.
De Taddeo and Pavlenski met in January 2019, seven months after her affair with Griveaux. They squatted in a house in the picturesque Mouzaïa quarter of northeast Paris. De Taddeo’s parents told France Info radio that Pavlenski was “not their cup of tea” and that Alexandra “was either careless or manipulated”.
In custody since Saturday night, De Taddeo reportedly admitted to police that she had received sexual videos from Griveaux, but denied having participated in their publication. Griveaux sent the messages under a Facebook protocol that was supposed to destroy them one minute after they were viewed. De Taddeo somehow recorded them on her smartphone. She said she kept them for revenge, not for political reasons.
The couple’s far-left lawyer, Juan Branco, is also under scrutiny. Branco wrote a book praising Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks. He was a failed candidate for the France Unbowed party in 2017, and has defended Maxime Nicolle, alias Fly Rider, the gilets jaunes activist who fanned the revolt with disinformation on the internet.
Branco showed intense scorn for Griveaux in Crépuscule (Twilight), the vitriolic book he published last year against the Macron administration. He accompanied black-clad rioters who broke down the gate to Griveaux’s then ministry in January 2019, and often bragged that Griveaux had to be rescued by bodyguards. Gilets jaunes protesters also published Griveaux’s home address, with building codes, on social media.
Branco invited Pavlenski and De Taddeo to a New Year’s Eve party at a fashionable apartment upstairs from the Cafe de Flore in St Germain-des-Prés. There, Pavlenski punched a guest in the face over a remark that displeased him, Le Monde and Mediapart reported, quoting guests at the dinner.
The Russian seized a kitchen knife. Someone broke a champagne bottle on his head. He nonetheless cut two guests, one on the thigh, the other on the face. By the time police arrived, he and De Taddeo had fled.
At the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, the day Pavlenski and De Taddeo were arrested, Macron warned that “Russia will continue to try to destabilise” western democracies, “either through private actors, or directly through intelligence services, or through proxies”.
Russia Today and Sputnik, media organisations under the Kremlin’s influence, spread rumours about Macron’s sexuality during his 2017 presidential campaign. Tens of thousands of his campaign documents were also leaked by hackers linked to Russian military intelligence.
Two weeks after his election, Macron publicly excoriated Putin for meddling in the French election, when Putin visited him at Versailles. Commentators wondered what form Putin’s revenge might take.
Critics have accused Macron of naivety, even appeasement, for his subsequent rapprochement with Russia. The French leader’s direct experience of Russian skulduggery seemed at odds with his determination, based on rational, geopolitical considerations, to befriend Putin.
When his ally Griveaux was brought down, Macron seemed to revert to distrust. Russian “private actors use ‘deep fake’ technologies”, he warned. “They manipulate, infiltrate and spread information of all types at very great speed, without traceability, in democratic systems where everything becomes known immediately.”