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Actress Haenel hailed for breaking France's #MeToo 'silence'

Fiachra Gibbons and Sophie Laubie

Agence France-Presse

Paris, France  /  Fri, November 8, 2019  /  04:01 pm
Actress Haenel hailed for breaking France's #MeToo 'silence'

This file photo taken on May 20, 2017 shows French actress Adele Haenel during a press conference at the 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes. French star Adele Haenel accused the director who discovered her of sexually harassing her from the age of 12 in a lengthy interview on Nov. 4, 2019. Director Christophe Ruggia strongly denied the claims, with his lawyers saying that he "categorically refuted" any misconduct. (AFP/Laurent Emmanuel)

The heartbreaking testimony of one of France's most acclaimed actresses who said she was sexually harassed as a 12-year-old by the director of her first film has shaken France's film industry.

Adele Haenel, who has won two French Oscars, has garnered unprecedented support since she spoke out on Monday claiming that she was subjected to "forced kisses on the neck" and "repeated touching" from a film-maker who became obsessed with her.

In a long and moving interview livestreamed by the investigative website Medipart, Haenel, now 30, appealed for French society to open its eyes to abuse in its midst.

"Monsters don't exist," she said. 

"This is... our fathers, our friends, our brothers we are talking about. As long as we don't see this, we'll never move forward."

Director Christophe Ruggia at first strongly denied he had done anything wrong, but after being expelled from the French directors' guild he once led, he admitted Wednesday to having made "errors".

"I did not see that my adulation and the hopes I placed in her, might -- given her young age -- be distressing (for her)," he said.

"If that is the case, I ask her to forgive me," 54-year-old Ruggia added.

French exception

While the #MeToo movement rocked Hollywood after the accusations about the disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein broke two years ago, the reaction in France was less than dramatic, even though some of Weinstein's alleged assaults took place at the Cannes film festival. 

Indeed, France's biggest female star, Catherine Deneuve, attacked the movement as a "puritanical witch-hunt" last year after signing an open letter with 100 other prominent French women defending men's right to "hit on" women.

French film industry figures -- including Deneuve, who suffered a minor stroke Wednesday -- have also long defended the controversial director Roman Polanski.

A pariah in Hollywood after his conviction for raping a 13-year-old girl in the 1970s, the maker of "Rosemary's Baby" has lived in France since as a fugitive from US justice.

But the big outpouring of support for Haenel may be turning France's more laissez-faire attitude on its head. 

Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard was one of the first to back Haenel, hailing her for "breaking a silence that was so heavy".

"You have left a mark in history... Your courage is a gift of unparallelled generosity for women and men," she added.

Julie Gayet, the actress and producer partner of former French president Francois Hollande, also took to Instagram to support her, saying Haenel was speaking for "all those other (victims) who are still in the shadows".

Read also: French star Haenel says she was 'abused' by director from age 12

Headache for Polanski

For many in the industry, the case is a turning point, with Marc Missonnier, of the main producers' union telling AFP that "we cannot pretend that nothing has happened" anymore.

UniFrance, the official body that promotes French film abroad, also took the unusual step of publicly backing Haenel and said it is now drawing up a charter to protect actors.

Veronique Le Bris, the founder of the Cine-Woman website, said this could be the tipping point.

"It is the first time in France that an internationally known actress has spoken out. It is going to lead to something," she said. 

Haenel's testimony comes as police re-opened an inquiry into the country's most powerful director Luc Besson last month, who had been accused of rape by a young actress.

Eight other women have previously told Mediapart that they had also been assaulted or harassed by Besson, who strongly denies the accusations.

While Haenel refused to go to the police because she said so few sexual assault cases come to court, Paris prosecutors have themselves opened a preliminary investigation into her case.

While Ruggia denies molesting her, he admitted "playing the pygmalion".

Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with the statue he created in the Roman poet Ovid's "Metamorphoses".

The emotion stirred by the Haenel case comes at the worst possible time for the producers of Polanski's new movie about the Dreyfus affair, "An Officer and a Spy", which is released in France next week.

Polanski sparked controversy at the Venice film festival in August, where the movie won the Grand Prix second prize, after drawing parallels between himself and the innocent Jewish officer persecuted by the French army in the last years of the 19th century.