French prosecutors open probe after top actress' harassment claims

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Adele Haenel said the French director Christophe Ruggia "put a system in place to isolate me, to have me at his place every weekend."

French prosecutors on Wednesday opened a sexual assault investigation after star actress Adele Haenel accused the director who discovered her of repeated harassment while she was a minor.

Haenel, now 30, says director Christophe Ruggia subjected her from the age of 12 to "constant sexual harassment" including "forced kisses on the neck" and touching during a three-year spell working on the 2002 film "The Devils".

Lawyers for Ruggia, who was expelled this week from the French Society of Film Directors (SRF), say he "categorically denies" any misconduct.

Making the accusations in an interview with French investigative news site Mediapart that was published on Sunday, Haenel said she would not file a legal complaint because of the "contempt with which the judicial system treats women".

According to justice ministry statistics, prosecutors initiated proceedings into just 27 percent of people accused in nearly 33,000 sexual assault allegations made in France in 2016.

Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told France Inter radio on Wednesday that Haenel's decision to speak out was "very courageous", but said the actress was "wrong to think that the judiciary is not able to respond to this kind of situation".

Hours later, the Paris prosecutor's office said they had opened a preliminary investigation into "sexual assault" on a minor less than 15 years old by a "person in a position of authority", as well as into sexual harassment.

Even though Haenel herself did not file a complaint, the prosecutor's office made use of its capacity to open the investigation by itself.

- 'Your courage is a gift' -

Belloubet had said it was essential that the issue was dealt with in court.

"I think that after all she has said, she should take legal action, and the judiciary has the capacity to deal with this," she added.

The actress said Ruggia, now 54, "put a system in place to isolate me, to have me at his place every weekend".

She added: "It was a man of nearly 40 who every week got himself into a room with a young girl who was between 12 and 15 and tried to feel her up."

The accusations have rocked the cinema industry in France, which has yet to see a major reckoning from the #MeToo movement that erupted in the wake of the accusations of sexual assault against disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

France's Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard applauded Haenel's decision to speak out, saying "your courage is a gift of unparallelled generosity for women and men".

"You are breaking a silence that was so heavy. Yours is a testimony of awesome power," Cotillard wrote on Instagram. "You have left a mark in history. A history of this liberating revolution. I have infinite gratitude towards you."