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Macron condemns ‘witch-hunt’ against actor Gérard Depardieu

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French President Emmanuel Macron has defended actor Gérard Depardieu, who faces multiple allegations of sexual assault and one of rape, saying calls for him to be stripped of his Legion of Honour medal amounted to a “witch-hunt”.

Depardieu has been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks after a French television documentary showed him making obscene remarks and gestures during a 2018 trip to North Korea.

Asked on talk show C à Vous on Wednesday night whether Depardieu was bringing shame on France, Macron said: “I am a great admirer of Gérard Depardieu . . . As president of the republic and as a citizen, I say he makes France proud.”

The 74-year-old actor, who rose to international fame in the 1990s with movies including Cyrano de Bergerac and Green Card, has been under formal investigation for rape since 2020 and it remains to be seen if he will be tried because the inquiries are continuing. Thirteen women have also told investigative publication Mediapart that he sexually assaulted them.

Depardieu strenuously denies all the allegations.

Macron’s culture minister Rima Abdul Malak said this week that she would open a “disciplinary procedure” against Depardieu, which is in her purview because the Legion of Honour is awarded by the government. But Macron said she had got ahead of herself, adding that he was the one who awarded the medal. 

“One thing you’ll never see me do is take part in witch-hunts. I hate that,” declared Macron. “It’s not on the basis of a report or this or that, that I would take the Legion of Honour away from an artist,” he added. 

“There may be victims, but there is also a presumption of innocence,” he said, adding that he simply wanted Depardieu to be able to “defend his rights like everyone else” and “continue to work, to create”.

The comments set off a firestorm of criticism, including from Macron’s predecessor, the former president François Hollande. 

“I want to speak about the women attacked, humiliated . . . all these women who, through Gérard Depardieu, see signs of violence, domination, contempt,” said Hollande. “That is what is expected of a president of the republic.”

Anne-Cécile Mailfert, president of the Women’s Foundation, expressed her dismay on social media. “Nothing makes sense in the president’s comments,” she wrote, describing them as “outrageous, abject for the victims and anachronistic”.

Socialist party leader Olivier Faure mocked Macron’s earlier pledge to make violence against women a priority: “This president believes nothing of what he announces, regardless of the subject.”

In 2017, Macron campaigned on gender parity issues and then ushered in a larger cohort of women MPs. He declared fighting sexual harassment and violence against women to be a “national priority” of his first presidential term.

The row comes amid a resurgence of public debate about how French society and the legal system handle sexual assault and rape allegations made against men in positions of power. The #MeToo movement that began in 2017 in the US has also affected France, but it has been resisted in the country’s tight-knit entertainment industry.

Depardieu has been a towering figure in French cinema during a career that has spanned almost five decades and hundreds of movies and TV shows. He has continued to work despite the allegations against him, appearing in five movies last year alone. Nor is he a stranger to controversy, having acquired a Russian passport in 2013 in protest against French taxation, before subsequently condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine.

In recent weeks, Mathias Vicherat, the head of Sciences Po university, was suspended after being questioned by police over domestic violence allegations made by his former partner. No charges have been filed and he says he did nothing wrong in what he called “a private matter”. 

Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, who for decades was the most famous news anchor in France, was also hit with a preliminary charge of rape, and more than a dozen women have accused him of sexual misconduct. He denies wrongdoing.

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