Probe launched after top French actress says harassed as minor

Valentin BONTEMPS and Stuart WILLIAMS
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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."

Paris prosecutors opened Wednesday a sexual assault investigation after a prominent actress, Adele Haenel, accused a leading director of harassing her while she was still a minor, claims that have rocked French cinema.

Haenel, now 30, says Christophe Ruggia subjected her to "constant sexual harassment" from the age of 12 to 15, including "forced kisses on the neck" and touching during a three-year spell working on the 2002 film, "The Devils".

Ruggia, who was expelled this week from the French Society of Film Directors (SRF), on Wednesday again denied sexually harassing Haenel, but admitted that his "adulation" for the actress could have proved distressing.

Making the accusations in an interview with French investigative news site Mediapart that was published 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 it had opened a preliminary investigation into "sexual assault" against 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 launch the investigation on its own.

Haenel is one of France's most highly regarded actresses and has won high praise at home and abroad for her performance in the recently released historical drama "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," directed by Celine Sciamma.

- 'Your courage is a gift' -

The 2002 film "The Devils" launched Haenel's career, with Ruggia credited for discovering her talent.

But the actress said that during the filming 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 sent shockwaves through 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."

- 'Social exclusion' -

But in his first reaction to the growing controversy, Ruggia said in a statement to Mediapart that he "never showed towards her the physical gestures and behaviour of sexual harassment that she accuses me of."

He nevertheless admitted he had made the error of "playing the pygmalion, with all the misunderstandings that such a stance arouses."

In the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, Pygmalion is the sculptor who fell in love with the statue he created.

"At the time, I did not see that my adulation and the hopes I had placed in her, could have seemed to her, given her young age, to be distressing at certain moments."

"If this is the case, I ask her to forgive me, if she can," said Ruggia.

But Ruggia also complained that after the publication of the reports, "my social exclusion is in progress and I can do nothing to escape it."

"Away from any trial... it is my turn to endure the pillory of the media," he added.