French writer Gabriel Matzneff is showing a modicum of potential remorse. Last month saw the publication of Le Consentement (or Consent), a woman’s book-length account of being molested at the age of 14 by the then 50-year-old writer. It has since sparked a reckoning in the country with the ways that Matzneff has been embraced as a literary figure despite his having long written about his sexual abuse of children. Recently, as French police launched an investigation, and as Matzneff’s books were pulled from the shelves, the 83 year old bemoaned the newly kindled outrage as a “wave of neo-puritanism.” In an interview on Wednesday, however, he admitted to the hypothetical possibility of moral failure, while also blaming others for not explaining right and wrong to him.
Sitting down with the Italian news channel BFMTV, Matzneff turned to the subject of his trips to Asia to sexually abuse children (often referred to with the misnomer of “sex tourism”). “A tourist should not behave like that,” he told the television cameras, according to France24. “An adult should turn their head away and resist the temptation. Naturally, if I did something that was not good I regret it.” He added, “You are there a traveller, and young boys and girls were trying to pull you in the street and jump on you under the benevolent eye of the police.” Just one more quote to stomach before we move on: “At the time, people talked of inciting a minor to debauchery, or indecent assault... But nobody ever spoke of crime.”
His statements dramatically unveil the mental gymnastics required to absolve oneself of responsibility for sexual abuse: If I did something bad, they jumped on me, nobody told me it was a crime. The shirking of moral responsibility here is resonant with all manner of harassment and abuse currently coming under scrutiny. Some cry that “it was a different time” and “times have changed” (or, in Matzneff’s words, “neo-puritanism”). But what has changed isn’t right or wrong but rather what Matzneff highlights: the ease with which people get away with abuses of power, the likelihood of anyone ever saying, “You did something wrong.”
It’s easy to imagine how Matzneff’s “nobody ever spoke of crime” justification might have played out over the years, given his status as a celebrated, award-winning author who has long admitted to, by the definition of United States law, sexually abusing children. (In France, there is no age of consent, but sex with anyone under the age of 15 is outlawed and considered a sexual infraction.) In the 1974 book Les Moins de Seize Ans (or The Under-16s), he wrote of his attraction to children and said, “To sleep with a child, it’s a holy experience, a baptismal event, a sacred adventure.” That he was embraced despite this is a result of France’s specific and complex historical context, which includes a social movement in the 1960s that oddly linked fights against racism, sexism, and homophobia with the sexual “liberation” of children (it’s a long and fascinating story).
It was only with the publication of Vanessa Springora’s Le Consentement earlier this year that French society began reconsidering Matzneff on a grand scale. Now, people are loudly telling him, “You did something wrong,” which means Matzneff has lost the convenient, enabling power of silence and turned cheeks.