PARIS — From early on, President Emmanuel Macron pledged to make equality for French women “the cause of my term,” even appointing a junior minister to fight for it, and vowing the “complete elimination of violence against women” in a 2017 speech.
So there was surprise this week, and consternation among French feminists, at two of his new cabinet appointments, both of which are regarded as severe betrayals of that early promise. Mr. Macron’s vow to give a fresh wind to his government with the cabinet reshuffle was quickly clouded.
Mr. Macron’s new interior minister and head of the national police, Gerald Darmanin, has been accused of rape in an affair that dates to 2009. His choice for justice minister, a celebrity lawyer named Eric Dupond-Moretti, who is ubiquitous on French television, has drawn the ire of feminists in France for hostile and insensitive remarks.
“The level of anger in feminist movements is huge,” said Caroline De Haas, a leading French feminist and founder of the group Nous Toutes!, All of Us. “At least, before, they pretended, Ms. De Haas said. “Now, they are not even pretending. These appointments are acts of anti-feminism.”
Mr. Darmanin “is the target of a rape complaint, and he’s the head of the police — how can that be?” asked Ms. De Haas. “It’s difficult enough to bring a rape complaint. So now, the message to women is, it’s not a priority.”
For others, too, the appointments signaled the end of the government’s commitment to advancing the rights of women in France, where the “Me Too” movement has raised some awareness of issues like sexism and violence against women, but fallen short of introducing a sea change in what remains a deeply patriarchal society.
Beyond feminist circles, the reaction to the appointments was far more muted. The question of Mr. Darmanin hardly came up in Parliament this week. Neither of the country’s two leading newspapers, Le Monde and Le Figaro, editorialized against them.
The left-leaning newspaper Libération, reacting to Mr. Macron’s appointments, ran a front-page headline merely noting, “It Begins Badly,” with a play on the French words for “male” and “bad” about Mr. Macron’s new cabinet.
“This is France. It doesn’t surprise me,” said Fatima Benomar, founder of the group Les Effronté-es, The Brazen Ones.
“To put at the head of the police a man accused of rape and at the head of justice someone who is overtly anti-feminist, it’s their way of saying, ‘the feminist mobilization is over,’ ” she said. “So, we’re expecting nothing from this government.”
The government is evidently hoping it will all blow over, and its airy dismissals Wednesday of the outcry suggested as much. Still, it was an unwelcome drag on a president who has insisted he wants to put a new face on a government that has had, since the beginning of Mr. Macron’s mandate in 2017, trouble maintaining the French public’s esteem.
M. Macron has two more years to go, but this week’s appointments did little to help his 2022 re-election chances.
On Tuesday, some 20 feminists demonstrated in front of the interior ministry as Mr. Darmanin was assuming his new post, chanting “Darmanin resign,” and “Darmanin rapist.” In front of the Madeleine church, demonstrators in black symbolically buried female equality, while a spokeswoman told reporters there that Mr. Darmanin’s appointment had dealt a “fatal blow” to the cause. “Culture of Rape on the Move!” read one of the signs. Demonstrations also took place in Lyon and Lille.
Women’s groups are vowing more action. “This was just the first droplet. We’re already organizing Friday’s demonstration,” Ms. Benomar said.
The rape accusation against Mr. Darmanin, first dismissed by French justice in 2018, was reopened this past June when a Paris appeals court decided that the preliminary investigation had not gone far enough.
As for the justice minister, Mr. Dupond-Moretti, he is celebrated for his “big mouth” and for winning a legendary string of acquittals as a defense lawyer. But activists are not ready to forgive him for calling the trial of a local official accused of several rapes, whom Mr. Dupond-Moretti defended, “an illustration of the war between the sexes.”
The flamboyant lawyer told GQ magazine last year: “In my day, when a girl rejected you, we called that getting blown off. These days, it’s a crime. Look, when it’s no, it’s no, ok. But what are you supposed to do for a French kiss these days? You’re supposed to send a registered letter, and wait for a reply?”
It is Mr. Darmanin’s case that could cause the Macron government the most trouble, and it has already leapt to his defense. Mr. Darmanin, a 37-year-old political whiz kid who was previously public accounts minister, is the son of a cleaning lady and a bartender and the grandson of an Algerian volunteer in the French army, and he illustrates Mr. Macron’s penchant for meritocracy.
One of his first acts as interior minister this week was an attempt to soothe police unions angered by his dismissed predecessor’s mild suggestions that racism was a problem in the police.
That provoked a furious reaction in police ranks, frightening Mr. Macron’s government; successive French governments have lived in fear of disquiet in the police unions.
But Mr. Darmanin comes with heavy baggage. In 2017, shortly after he became a minister for Mr. Macron, a fellow political party member, Sophie Spatz, accused him of having raped her in 2009. Mr. Darmanin was then a functionary at party headquarters in the legal department, and a municipal councilor in the northern city of Tourcoing. He has always maintained the encounter was consensual.
Ms. Spatz had gone to the then-26-year-old fledgling politician with a request: help her erase a previous conviction and suspended prison sentence for blackmail and threats, “tied to her former activities as an escort-girl,” according to court papers. Ms. Spatz, by 2009 married and eager to wipe out the stain, had already deluged French justice officials with claims she had been wrongly convicted.
Finally she went to see Mr. Darmanin. He invited her to dinner, according to the court papers, and he promised to help by writing a letter. “He took her hand and said, ‘Me too, you’ve got to help me,’ ’’ the document says.
“She told Gerald Darmanin that she had to go home because her husband was waiting for her,” it says.
She didn’t go home. Dinner was followed by a ‘‘swinger’s nightclub’’ and then a hotel room.
Afterward, “she thought that he had forced sex on her and that she had no choice, because this letter was her only hope and he had promised he would make her ‘innocent,’ ’’ according to the court papers.
She told her now ex-husband that she had been “obligated to sleep with Gerald Darmanin because he could make her innocent and that otherwise she wouldn’t have done it,” the court papers state.
Mr. Darmanin has maintained to investigators that she led him on throughout the evening. He has filed a libel suit against her.
The government is counting on the public losing interest. “I’m totally ok with this appointment,” Mr. Macron’s new prime minister, Jean Castex, said on French television Wednesday. Mr. Darmanin “has the right, like everybody, to the presumption of innocence,” Mr. Castex said.
On Wednesday Mr. Castex, previously a high-ranking civil servant, had a rocky baptism by fire in front of the National Assembly. The far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said afterward that the parliamentary deputies had been subjected to a “hurricane of banalities” from the mild-mannered new prime minister.
On the subject of Mr. Darmanin, Mr. Castex told French television that he wouldn’t have been named to the government “if in my soul and conscience, having looked at this, I had had the slightest doubt.”
Ms. Patterson’s lawyer, Élodie Tuaillon-Hibon, is not convinced. “I’m revolted, as her lawyer and as a French citizen,” she said. “I’m dismayed. I had no idea that the presumption of innocence could get you a ministry.”
“What this means is that he’s the boss of the investigative police who will have to carry out investigations of him,” she said.
Daphné Angles contributed reporting.