France appeals for witnesses over writer accused of raping minor

Guillaume DAUDIN and Stuart WILLIAMS
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Gabriel Matzneff, pictured in 2014, has long been tolerated, admired and even protected in Paris literary circles

French police launched an appeal on Tuesday for more witnesses and victims to come forward in the case of a writer accused of raping a minor and who repeatedly described relationships with underage teens in his work.

Prosecutors on January 3 launched a rape investigation into author Gabriel Matzneff after a bombshell book by publisher Vanessa Springora claimed they had a sexual relationship three decades ago, starting when she was 14.

Commentators have described the ensuing furore as a possible turning point in France after decades of what some view as an overly permissive attitude towards sexual exploitation of women and children.

"If you were a victim or a witness of actions of a sexual nature which could be of interest to this investigation, the police are ready to hear you," said an appeal posted by French police.

"Whatever the time period, the circumstances and the people who could be implicated, the police encourage all those who have information to come forward," it added.

In her book "Le Consentement" (Consent), Springora described how she was seduced by Matzneff and how this left lasting scars.

Matzneff has never made any secret of his preference for sex with adolescent girls and boys, including on trips to Asia. In the mid-1970s, he published a notorious essay called "Les Moins de Seize Ans" ("Those under 16").

- 'No forgotten victims' -

Paris prosecutor Remy Heitz told Europe 1 radio that as well as the events described by Springora, the investigation "will seek to identify any other possible victims who could have suffered violations of the same nature, on national territory or abroad".

The responsibility of prosecutors is to make sure there are "no forgotten victims", Heitz said.

While Springora met investigators in January, the events described by her happened so long ago that a trial may not be possible because of the statute of limitations.

"If there are other victims," the system must "allow them to speak, take into account what they say, and pursue the perpetrator," Heitz said.

Matzneff, 83, has long been tolerated, admired and even protected in Paris literary circles. In 2013, he won the prestigious Renaudot prize.

But his publisher Gallimard said in January it was halting the sale of his works, and Matzneff also risks losing two major state honours as officer of Arts and Letters and knight of the Order of National Merit.

He said in an interview with French television in January that he "regrets" his trips to Asia to have sex with minors, claiming that at the time "no one ever said it was a crime".

- 'Dead man walking' -

Matzneff, who now lives in an undisclosed location on the Italian riviera, said in an article published in the New York Times on Tuesday that he feels "like the living dead, a dead man walking".

He lamented that former supporters had stayed silent.

"They're showing their cowardice," he said. "We can say caution, but it's more than caution from people I considered friends."

France was seen by many activists to have been slow to react to the wave of #MeToo exposure of sexual harassment that began in the film industry in the United States.

However literature is not the only sector being rocked by a reckoning: the cinema industry in France is reeling from accusations by star actress Adele Haenel that director Christophe Ruggia assaulted her while she was a minor.

And the world of sport has been shaken by claims from former ice skating world championship bronze medallist Sarah Abitbol that she was raped by coach Gilles Beyer from 1990 to 1992, starting when she was just 15 years old.