PARIS — The storm sparked by Emmanuel Macron’s defense of film star Gérard Depardieu shows no sign of abating as the showbiz world tears itself apart over accusations targeting one of France’s best-known actors.
The French film star is at the center of a fresh controversy over allegations of sexual assault after a documentary released last month featured Depardieu making obscene remarks and sexualizing a young girl. He has however found a supporter in an unexpected corner: the French presidency.
In an interview in December, Macron took the political establishment by surprise when he came out in support of Depardieu praising “his genius,” his contributions to French film-making and condemning a “a man-hunt” against him. “I am a great admirer of Gérard Depardieu… he makes France proud,” he said.
The 75-year-old actor, who has stared in over 200 films, has been under investigation for rape since 2020 and faces multiple accusations of sexual assault, following testimonies published on the website Mediapart. Depardieu has denied all allegations.
Macron’s stance on Depardieu stands out from how other Western leaders have typically handled sensitive gender violence topics. The Spanish Prime Minister has been vocal on fight against sexism and sexual violence, whether in football or in legislative battles, while the U.K.’s Rishi Sunak has expressed concern over allegations in the media industry or in the Conservative Party.
Macron’s unexpected comments have also reignited a culture war that has split the world of showbiz over how sexual assault allegations against celebrities and powerful men are handled.
French actors, writers and film producers have lined up on both sides of the debate, signing competing open letters. One slammed “a lynching” against Depardieu while another criticized “the special treatment” granted to the actor.
The row over Depardieu has blown up into a confusing political rift as actors pulled support from the the pro-Depardieu letter after it emerged its author had links with the far-right. Yannis Ezziadi, a bull-fighting activist and far-right commentator, started the letter in defense of Depardieu before several actors distanced themselves from his campaign.
As the French president will have to fight Marine Le Pen’s National Rally on multiple fronts, including buying power, the war in Ukraine and immigration, culture wars is a battleground Macron could do without. “Depardieu is our terroir (heritage), and in France, you don’t touch the terroir,” said a casting director quoted recently by Mediapart.
Going against the grain
When Emmanuel Macron came to power in 2017 at the height of the #metoo movement, he campaigned on gender issues, promising to make the fight against sexism a “great cause” of his first mandate. “Shame must change sides,” he said at the time. The French president promoted a large number of female MPs and nominated the country’s second-ever female prime minister Elisabeth Borne in 2022.
But Macron has been reluctant to act on accusations against men in his own government. In 2020, Macron appointed Gérald Darmanin as interior minister despite an ongoing investigation for rape (for which Darmanin was later cleared) and later when one of his former ministers was accused of rape, he cautioned against any rash reactions.
In last month’s interview with French channel France 5, Macron justified his defense of Depardieu and decision to resist calls to strip the actor of his Légion d’Honneur, arguing that ostracizing Depardieu on the basis of allegations goes against the principle of the presumption of innocence.
“I am unassailable on issues of the fight against violence against women… but things have to be done in the right order. Among our values there’s the presumption of innocence and you won’t see me take part in man-hunts, I hate that,” he said.
For many in the film industry, Macron displayed a lack of empathy for the plaintiffs and a tin-eared attitude on issues of gender violence.
He also raised eyebrows when he questioned the journalistic work behind a recent documentary featuring Depardieu making sexist comments about an interpreter and sexualizing a young girl during a visit to North Korea in 2018. Echoing fake news circulating on the internet, Macron hinted the editing of the documentary broadcast on TV channel France 2 was misleading.
On Tuesday, French actor Laure Calamy, who starred in the French series Call my Agent! said the president’s comments were “a slap in the face” against the women who were courageous enough to press charges “when you see how difficult it is to lodge a complaint, especially against a powerful man” in France.
The French president’s comments also perplexed observers given Depardieu’s tempestuous relationship with his home country, the film star having expressed his admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and disdain for France.
But Depardieu was still one of the most popular actors in France last year, raising questions over whether Macron may also be deliberately going against the grain of a political and artistic elites that are generally left-leaning and sensitive to gender issues.
With the hard-right media in France, including TV channel CNews and radio channel Europe 1, turning Depardieu into a cause célèbre, some have questioned whether Macron is seeking to undercut the far right ahead of EU elections in June.
Macron’s “praise of Gérard Depardieu looks like a new nod to the more reactionary part of public opinion” in France, writes the daily Le Monde in an editorial.