Last month Ed wrote about Gabriel Matzneff, a celebrated French author who spent decades writing about sex with underage girls and boys. For most of his life Matzneff was celebrated for this transgressive literature, but that changed recently when one of his former victims, Vanessa Springora, wrote a book of her own titled “Le Consentement” or Consent. In the wake of this sudden turn in his public fortunes, Matzneff has fled France. The New York Times found him hiding out in Italy:
Mr. Matzneff disappeared in late December, just before the publication of Ms. Springora’s memoir. As the scandal exploded in Paris, I pored through his diaries and books. When a brief interview he gave to a French television network hinted at his whereabouts, I went to the Italian Riviera and found Mr. Matzneff — a creature of habit, his diaries made clear — in his favorite cafe.
Initially startled, defensive and angry, the writer admitted that he was “very, very lonely” and began to open up.
Asking that his exact location not be revealed, Mr. Matzneff spoke for three and a half hours.
He expressed bewilderment at the sudden cultural shift in France and his precipitous downfall. He showed no remorse for his past actions and did not renounce any of his writings.
But the focus of the Times’ story isn’t just Matzneff’s current whereabouts, it’s how he managed to escape scrutiny for so long. The answer involves the unique culture in France which celebrates authors (and artists) above all others. In this culture, Matzneff was untouchable for many decades because he had powerful friends including President Francois Mitterrand who was a fan of his first book.
When Matzneff was briefly investigated by police in the 1980s (he was then living with 14-year-old Ms. Springora) he showed the police an essay President Mitterrand had written praising his work and they decided not to pursue the investigation.
But it wasn’t just a few powerful people that defended him. Matzneff was defended by the elite culture of intelligentsia in France. I found this vignette particularly telling:
The most public criticism came in 1990, on the literary television show “Apostrophes,” as the host and guests discussed Mr. Matzneff’s latest diary, “Mes Amours Décomposés,” (“My Decomposed Loves.”) In it, he boasted about having sex with countless minors, including 11- and 12-year-old Filipino boys he describes as “a rare spice.”
The single foreigner present, Denise Bombardier, a journalist from Quebec, denounced his pedophilia.
The reaction from France’s intelligentsia was swift.
Josyane Savigneau, who was editor of a literary supplement of the French newspaper Le Monde from 1991 to 2005, publicly chided Ms. Bombardier and defended Mr. Matzneff’s work.
In a recent interview, Ms. Savigneau recalled being revolted by some of Mr. Matzneff’s writings, but said his books were superior to others that landed on her desk.
“I saw him as a man who liked young women,” she said. “In France, he was never seen with boys.”
This would have happened just a few years before Bill Clinton aka Slick Willie became the nominee for the Democratic Party. And a few years later, Clinton would be impeached and the story of his sexual involvement with an intern in the Oval Office would become international news. I remember one of the arguments used to defend Clinton at the time was that the rest of the world was mocking America’s puritanism. In a 2017 piece for Vox, Matt Yglesias wrote of his own view of Clinton’s impeachment at the time which leaned heavily on France’s view of such relationships.
Unfortunately for me, I’m a little too old to get away with claiming to have had no opinion on this at the time. My version of a sophisticated high schooler’s take on the matter was that the American media should get over its bourgeois morality hang-ups and be more like the French, where François Mitterrand’s wife and his longtime mistress grieved together at his funeral.
As a married 30-something father, I’ve come around to a less “worldly” view of infidelity. As a co-founder of Vox, I’d never in a million years want us to be the kind of place where men in senior roles can get away with the kind of misconduct that we’ve seen is all too common in our industry and in so many others.
There’s a connection here that hasn’t been made (at least not that I’ve seen). The culture that long defended Matzneff’s books and behavior was also used to defend Clinton’s behavior. Those criticizing Clinton at the time were shamed in the same way Denise Bombardier was shamed for criticizing Matzneff. Looking back from the era of #MeToo, with Harvey Weinsten on trial and Jeffrey Epstein dead, you wonder how anyone ever got away with it.