Sexual harassment - a taboo topic in French higher education - is being challenged by a group of postgraduates who are gaining support across the university system.
Clasches (Collectif de Lutte Anti-Sexiste et Contre le Harcèlement dans l'Enseignement Supérieur), set up in January by ten social science students, is gaining widespread support from the academic world. A petition on its website gathered several hundred signatures in under a week.
"We wanted to break the silence," said a founder member, a postgraduate student at the Sorbonne who asked to remain anonymous. Clasches was an attempt to bring the problem of sexual harassment to public attention and mobilise the universities, she said.
Clasches denounces what it claims are "numerous cases of sexual harassment" in institutions. While conspiracies of silence mean few facts are available, anecdotal evidence and rumours abound.
One of the petition's signatories, Eric Fassin, professor of sociology at the Ecole Normale Superieure, said: "Students, especially graduate students, very much depend upon their professors. They need intellectual support, but also financial aid, letters of recommendation for jobs and so on. This is an intense relationship, often based on mutual admiration, but the dependence is not mutual." It was not surprising that "sometimes there may be more", he said.
"The cases I hear about in France are not based on consent - they are about students who say no, and professors who won't take no for an answer."
Reprisals follow, and victims, especially if they refuse to remain silent, have "simply disappeared", said Professor Fassin. "They have been drowned in oblivion. And the harassers are still around."
Victims can sue, but in 2000 there were only 34 convictions. Clasches wants universities to introduce regulations to resolve the problem - if not, it will encourage students to turn to the law.