The Matzneff affair

Literary Paris and the French Left have had a blind spot for paedophilia—for decades

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Gabriel Matzneff: Fêted for decades by literary Paris, despite his open paedophilia (© Patrick Fouque/Paris Match via Getty Images)

A French friend was molested as a girl by a man in the stairwell of her apartment building. Distraught, she told her mother, who comforted her—and asked “but did it feel nice?” This was Paris in the late seventies. But not any old Paris. My friend’s father was a university professor, her mother a psychiatrist, both active in  the May 1968 students’ revolt.

The same friend told me about the writer Gabriel Matzneff, many of whose books recount how young girls of good family would come to him, well-known on the Boulevard Saint-Germain as a refined literary gentleman, to lose their virginity and learn about sex. That was his version, in any case. His first success was a book called Les Moins de 16 ans (The Under-16s). Matzneff also wrote about travelling to the Philippines where he had sex with 10-year-old boys.

The police never bothered him; literary Paris fêted him. On the popular TV book programme Apostrophes, a spectacle-waving presenter raised giggles  by calling Matzneff a “veritable sex education teacher” and teased him as a “Lolita collector”. That was in 1990. Five years later, President François Mitterrand, who had already praised Matzneff in print, put him on the honours list. In 2013, he won the Renaudot book prize.

Finally the tide has turned. Vanessa Springora was 13 when she met Matzneff. He was 49. Only later, when she read his books, did she realise she was one in a long list of youngsters he had seduced; used both sexually and to provide material for his books. Now her own book, Le Consentement, exposes the now 83-year-old as a sexual predator.

Writers were not the only ones. “Il est interdit d’interdire” (“It is forbidden to forbid”) and “Jouir sans entraves” (“Get your orgasms where you can”, in loose translation) were big slogans in the May 1968 students’ revolt.  One of its champions,  Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now co-leader of the Green Party group in the European Parliament, has talked of the emotional and sexual relations he had with the children he looked after at an alternative kindergarten in Frankfurt. “When a little girl of five, five and half starts to undress you, it’s fantastic,” he said on French television in 1982. Libération, the radical newspaper co-founded by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1973, carried ads placed by men looking for relations with minors. In 1977, Libération and Le Monde published op-eds denouncing the imprisonment of three men for having had sex with boys and calling for the abolition of the age of consent. Signatories included Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, the influential child psychologist Françoise Dolto, the philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault and the future culture minister Jack Lang.

In 1985, 200,000 people bought the single “Lemon Incest” by the late Serge Gainsbourg, sung in a breathy—and pretty unbearable—duet with his 12-year-old daughter Charlotte. The novelist Tony Duvert, winner of the Medicis book prize, was one of the most vocal supporters of sex with children, boasting of having had sexual relations with over a thousand boys aged “six to 50”. But he died at home, not in prison—now a real possibility for Matzneff.

The public prosecutor has launched an investigation into allegations of “rape of minors of under 15 years of age”. Police are sifting through documents they seized at his flat and at his publishers. Matzneff has left Paris for Rome.

But he still keeps in touch with old friends. In the red velvet and wood interior of a Left Bank café also frequented by Milan Kundera and Peter Handke, I meet one of them: Roland Jaccard, author of the autobiographical trilogy Sugar Babies, Flirt en hiver and Une fille pour l’été. Now a 78-year-old in Nike trainers, he tells me he lives with a 21-year-old Turkish woman. She presumably does the washing up because women who make men do the dishes do not, he says forcefully, have his favour. In Jaccard’s head it is still 1983, a time when he and Matzneff would go and pick up girls at the Piscine Deligny, an open-air swimming pool that, until it sank, floated in the middle of Paris on the River Seine.

Jaccard says he did not share his friend’s taste for very young adolescents but still trots out his arguments in support of the author of Les Moins de 16 ans. “It was ‘other times, other mores’,” he says, wistfully. “And if you take paedophilia out of French literature I’m not sure what you’d have left . . . you’d lose Marcel Jouhandeau, Julien Green, André Gide, Roland Barthes . . . There are pages of Proust where he defends paedophilia . . . Matzneff never forced anyone to sleep with him.” He looks dismayed and a little hurt when I reply that is neither here nor there: this is why we have an age of consent.

In fact, French law is more complicated than that. Although an adult having sex with someone below the age of 15 is always committing a crime, it is downgraded from sexual “aggression” to “infraction” in the absence of “violence, threat, constraint or surprise”. A child’s “consent” does count for something.

But for those who inhabited literary and left-wing Parisian circles in the 70s and 80s, it mattered little what the law said. The criminalising of sex with children was viewed much as the prohibition of homosexual sex would have been—the remnant of a repressive, patriarchal past that would soon be swept away by the sexual revolution.

For Sylvie Brunel, a writer who has spoken out on the Matzneff affair partly because her daughter alleges she was molested (at the Paris Opera) by one of  Mitterrand’s most famous ministers, that argument exemplifies the literary world’s hypocrisy. “It excuses itself, saying that was how things were . . . but that is completely untrue. I was born in 1960 and I remember perfectly, when I was growing up, how prudish and morally rigid it was, but how a tiny Parisian intelligentsia allowed itself to ignore morality and even the law.” 

The intelligentsia has often won the battles of sexual politics. Making paedophilia legal, and accepted by the wider public, is one battle it lost. But it is worth remembering that it might have been otherwise.