New French govt pledges ‘zero tolerance’ for sexual abuse

French Minister of Solidarity Damien Abad arrives at the Elysee Palace for the fist cabinet meeting since French President Emmanuel Macron 's reelection, Monday, May 23, 2022 in Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

PARIS (AP) — There will be “zero tolerance” for sexual misconduct by members of French President Emmanuel Macron’s new government, but the judiciary, not the press, will decide the truth, a government spokeswoman said after press coverage of Monday’s first Cabinet meeting focused on a minister who has been accused of rape.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, the second woman ever named to the post, met Sunday evening with Damien Abad, who is in charge of French policies for the disabled, to discuss allegations by two women who claimed that he assaulted them over a decade ago. He has firmly denied the accusations, which surfaced this weekend after his appointment on Friday. He said such claims would be impossible, given his own disability, which affects the joints and the muscles.

“What is at stake is establishing the truth,” said government spokeswoman Olivia Gregoire, taking up her role for the first time following the new government’s first Cabinet meeting.

“And it is for judicial authorities to do so. Not me, not you either,” she told reporters.

Monday’s first Cabinet meeting focused on helping struggling French families regain some purchasing power and other issues to “change the lives of the French,” Gregoire said.

But the scandal also gave Macron’s government an opportunity to come down firmly on the side of women who say they have been the victims of sexual abuse.

Gregoire encouraged other women who may be victims “to present themselves without reserve” to judicial authorities, stressing that the government “is at the sides of those, following an aggression or harrassment, have the immense courage to speak” and others who “have walled themselves in silence, or have been walled up,”

Abad was a last-minute prize for Macron’s Renaissance party that may backfire if the scandal doesn’t quickly fade. His appointment had already been mocked by the right because it came a day after he left his conservative mainstream party for Macron’s centrists.

Borne said Sunday that she was unaware of the allegations surrounding Abad, but “there will be no impunity” in such cases for members of the government if judicial authorities step in.

Abad, who was born with arthrogryposis, a condition that affects the joints and muscles, said in a statement Sunday that the “accusations concern acts or gestures which are simply impossible for me due to my disability.”

He said he was forced to make clear that “the sexual act can only take place with the assistance and help of my partner,” and allegations by one of the women “that I could drug, carry, undress and rape an unconscious woman are simply inconceivable and abject.”

The allegations made by the two women were revealed on Saturday, a day after the new government was announced, by the investigative online publication Mediapart.

In one case, a complaint was filed twice, in 2012 and 2017 and later thrown out, the government spokesman said. No legal action has so far been taken in the other case, although a watchdog women’s group said it had notified leading members of Macron’s centrist party and Abad’s previous party about the complaints on May 16 — four days before the government was announced.

The timing could not be worse for Macron, who is trying to keep his parliamentary majority in an election in June so can move forward with his agenda.

The growing scandal over Abad has somewhat drowned out an uproar over the newly appointed education minister, Pap Ndiaye, a historian who had previously headed the National Museum of the History of Immigration. He is being challenged by the right-wing opposition for being too “woke” — for example, for allegedly taking part in gatherings that excluded white people. He has not commented.