Gabriel Matzneff was a celebrated writer with a coterie of powerful friends, including fashion designer Yves St. Laurent and former President François Mitterrand, who once described Matzneff as a “mix of Dorian Gray and Dracula.”
That the French writer had a pedophile past was a secret to nobody. He wrote about his penchant for sex with children for years. He discussed it openly on television. He was reported to the police for sexual abuse decades ago but was never investigated, even as he challenged bourgeois taboos and collected a stipend from the Ministry of Culture.
“To sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure,” he wrote in his 1974 book “Les Moins de Seize Ans” (“The Under Sixteens”). He went further in his 1985 diaries — “Un Galop d’Enfer” (“A Hellish Gallop”) — writing of his visits to the Philippines: “Sometimes, I’ll have as many as four boys, from eight to 14 years old, in my bed at the same time.”
Matzneff’s perverse predilections have become this nation’s latest morality tale. A new book detailing his sexual relationship with a girl beginning when she was 14 and he 50 has stunned French society and upended the myth that artists, writers and filmmakers should be indulged for their passions and creativity. The revelation is a major reckoning for the literary world and a rebuke of an elitism that for centuries has wrapped deviant sexual practices in an air of respectability.
In “Le Consentement” (“Consent”), Vanessa Springora, now 47, claims she was groomed by Matzneff when she was a girl. She recounts a life of confusion and conflicted feelings that perhaps she had consented to the relationship and must be blamed. She writes of psychological devastation and of having no understanding that she was a victim until she was an adult.
That Matzneff wrote about their relationship in his books, long after it had ended, served as a recurring reminder of what Springora came to see for what it was: abuse.
“As if his passing through my life hadn’t been devastating enough,” Springora writes, “he had to continue documenting, falsifying, recording and forever engraving his misdeeds.”
The statute of limitations has run out for Matzneff to be charged with sexually abusing Springora. But the Paris public prosecutor has opened an investigation into his sexual past and asked for potential victims and witnesses to come forward. In a separate case, brought by a victims network organization, a Paris court has set a trial date in September on allegations that Matzneff’s work is an “apology for pedophilia.”
The 83-year-old Matzneff could not be reached for comment. A French TV company recently tracked him down on the Italian coast. He described his relationship with the underage Springora as a love affair. “I don’t want to read her book,” he told BFMTV. “We were happy together. I have marvelous memories. We lived a lasting and marvelous love story.”
“When you publish something it is a public confession,” he said. “That’s what writers do, that’s why writers are the first to be shot because they leave written traces. They write, they confess their sins. At that time nobody thought of the law. We did things that weren’t allowed ... nobody spoke of a crime at that time.”
The story has reverberated beyond legal circles to the heart of France’s intellectual class. Springora heads a prestigious publishing house and travels in many of the same circles as Matzneff.
“The French justice system has prostrated itself before a writer,” said Mehana Mouhou, a lawyer involved in the suit against the author. “Matzneff never hid what he did. He recounted the relations he had with young children whose lives have been shattered and scarred. Ministers, people in the world of culture, politics, the media, let it go and and now we have to ask why they let it go and seek accomplices. Matzneff is just the tip of an iceberg.”
The essence of Matzneff’s defense is that his sexual relations with children happened in a liberal, laissez-faire era before the #MeToo movement and other societal shifts that have changed sexual attitudes. He references a moment when famous writers including Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and respected newspapers, notably Libération and Le Monde, defended the idea that sex with minors was a form of liberation for both parties.
“There were all these arguments [in the ’70s and ’80s] that the child was a person in their own right, that they were fully formed at age 6 and that the family was a prison from which the child had to be liberated,” said Pierre Verdrager, a French sociologist and expert in the history of pedophilia. “These people argued that sexual relations with an adult were a form of emancipation, and that parents who complained that their child had been abused were only interested in getting money in damages.”
Matzneff benefited from the cover of the culture’s libertine sentiments. During a 1970s television show, he was questioned about his desire for schoolgirls by the Canadian writer Denise Bombardier, who said his actions disgusted her. The next day the French writer Jacques Lanzmann suggested someone should have slapped Bombardier for her rudeness.
France had no age of “consent” until 2018. Since World War II, the age where sexual relations can be considered legal — known as the age of “sexual majority” — has always been 15. However, Verdrager said the question of whether children under that age can consent to sexual relations with an adult is a gray area.
“In the 1980s there was a very strong movement for the lowering of the sexual majority to 13 or 14 and then progressively getting rid of it altogether,” said Verdrager. “The people who supported this cited Greek mythology and historical traditions to support their ideas.”
French identity is entwined with reverence for culture. Literature, cinema and theater are seen as beacons of enlightenment in a philistine world. Government policy for more than half a century supported and defended this idea, giving rise to the expression “l’exception culturelle française”: the French cultural exception.
Books are published because they are considered artistically worthy, not profitable. Sales of Matzneff’s books could be counted more in the hundreds than in the tens of thousands.
But artists, writers, directors, actors like him are regarded with a certain awe. France and Switzerland have refused to extradite the Polish-French film director Roman Polanski, wanted in the U.S. after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1978. French writers and artists argue that Polanski’s work transcends what many outside the intelligentsia regard as moral failings.
This aura feeds into the French idea of “seduction,” which has less to do with sex and is more a mix of allure, promise and charm.
In 2011, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the man who would have been France’s next president, was arrested in New York and charged with sexual assault and attempted rape of a hotel maid — charges later dismissed though Strauss-Kahn settled a civil suit for around $1.5 million.
Public figures rose to his defense, describing the then chief of the International Monetary Fund as an inveterate seducer of women and a “brilliant economist.” One French magazine editor said Strauss-Kahn was guilty of nothing more than “un troussage de domestique,” the idea that the master can have his way with a servant girl.
These sentiments were shaken in 2018 after revelations against Harvey Weinstein, which propelled a #MeToo movement in France. French feminists hailed a long overdue rejection of the idea that seduction à la Strauss-Kahn was acceptable. But not everyone agreed. One hundred French women, including actress Catherine Deneuve and libertine writer Catherine Millet, signed an open letter defending men’s “freedom to bother women,” which they said was “indispensable to sexual freedom.” The letter was seen as a repudiation of Anglo-Saxon morality and puritanism.
But the Matzneff Affair, as it is now known, is set to recast the liberties extended to writers.
Asked how Matzneff was able to operate openly as a pedophile, Bernard Pivot, a well-known French literary critic and journalist who has interviewed the writer many times, said: “In the 1970s and 1980s, literature came before morality; today, morality comes before literature. Morally, that’s progress. We’re all more or less the intellectual and moral products of a country and, above all, an era.”
Latifa Bennari, the founder and president of the Blue Angel Assn., a support network for victims of pedophilia and for those with pedophilic inclinations, has brought a lawsuit against Matzneff for “glorifying pedophilia.” She says some men who were struggling to control their sexual urges were given a green light to abuse minors by Matzneff’s work.
“He wasn’t fantasizing, he actually did these things and he wrote about them,” said Bennari. “I don’t understand how anyone could have closed their eyes to this. They say it was a different era, but pedophilia was never acceptable.”
The lawsuit was filed in a Paris court this month and will have full hearing in September. A criminal investigation is also underway. Police have raided the offices of Matzneff’s publisher, Gallimard, for unexpurgated manuscripts. But it could take years before a criminal case comes to trial.
“My aim is to bring Matzneff to justice for the first time in his life,” said Mouhou, the lawyer representing Blue Angel Assn. in its lawsuit. “The crime of promoting pedophilia is five years’ imprisonment, and that is what I seek.
“What Matzneff has done is to incite pedophiles to act. That is a crime. It’s a scandal for French society and the French justice system. The public prosecutor could have brought a case against him, but for a long time they did nothing. He published books vaunting pedophilia as if it was art and literature when in fact it was a crime.”
Willsher is a special correspondent.