France’s elite universities face campus sexual assault reckoning

Campaigners say tight-knit elitism, boozy initiation weeks and a lacklustre administrative response have led to a culture of silence in grandes écoles

February 26, 2021
Students demonstrate in front of the Institut detudes politiques ('Sciences Po') university to denounce gender-based violence and the lack of action by the administration, in Strasbourg, France, February 12, 2021. Elite universities face campus reckoning
Source: Getty
Students demonstrate in front of Sciences Po in Strasbourg this month

In December 2019, the French investigative journalist Iban Raïs was in the student bar of ESSEC Business School, consistently ranked as one of the leading institutions of its kind in the world, when he saw something that shocked him.

Looking down over the bar was a stuffed deer’s head, a hunting trophy nicknamed “Big Buck”. Except it was almost impossible to see Big Buck, because the deer was covered in female students’ underwear. “You could not even see the nose or the head,” he recalled.

Several students told Mr Rais, who is soon to publish a book about sexual assault in elite French universities, that during raucous parties, bartenders would stop the music and halt serving drinks until female students had thrown their underwear over Big Buck. “How is this possible?” he remembered thinking at the time.

In the past month, a dam has broken in France, with hundreds of students coming forward on social media to share stories of sexual harassment, assault and rape on campus, particularly at Sciences Po in Paris, the grande école that is a training ground for the country’s political elite, and a separate network of institutes of the same name spread across the rest of the country.

France is obviously not unique in facing a reckoning over sexism and sexual violence on campus, nor is the problem confined to its most prestigious institutions. In the US, for example, the 2015 film The Hunting Ground traced the story of rape victims – and their struggle to be taken seriously by university officials – on campuses there. French elite universities, meanwhile, do not deny a problem exists, but insist that they have been working to tackle it for years.

But critics say that the grandes écoles’ extreme elitism and dominance of top jobs in politics and business – which is so notorious that it prompted president Emmanuel Macron in 2019 to promise to shut down one school in response to the “yellow vest” protests – plus their obsession with reputation and, in some cases, private legal status has made the problem worse. “It’s a huge wave that’s coming,” said Mr Raïs. “I think in France it’s worse than in other countries, because of the culture of silence.”

Quantifying the scale of sexual violence on French campuses is hard, but the numbers that do exist are troubling, to say the least. After Mr Raïs published an exposé in January 2020 alleging sexual violence and homophobia at three of the country’s top business schools – HEC Paris, ESSEC and EDHEC Business School – more than 500 students and graduates signed a petition saying they had suffered under the culture he described. For his upcoming book, he spoke to about 20 victims of sexual assault or rape from these three schools.

A more comprehensive overview comes from the Student Observatory for Sexual Violence in Higher Education, set up two years ago by Iris Marechal, a master’s student at HEC, after she sensed an “omnipresence of sexual violence” at the business school, with “sexism in classes” and “sexual assault during parties”.

One in 20 students have been raped, and one in 10 have been victims of “sexual violence”, which ranges from verbal harassment to groping, according to an online survey that drew more than 10,000 responses from across the country. Two out of three perpetrators were male, a proportion that rises when alcohol is involved. An online survey is not representative, but Ms Marechal said that the figures tally with surveys conducted by the government.

Just 11 per cent had reported anything to their university, with around a third of respondents saying that it would be "useless" to do so or that if they did make a report, it would not be taken seriously.

Because grandes écoles are stuffed full of future chief executives, ministers and MPs, victims are sometimes afraid to report their attackers, critics say. “Victims can’t reveal…what they have been through, because they are scared it will destroy their professional careers,” argued Mr Raïs. “The person you are accusing may become someone.”

Ms Marechal said she knew victims who had decided to stay quiet because they were worried about devastating the perpetrator’s career. “If he has a lot of friends, a lot of contacts, you don’t want to break his reputation in the school, and you don’t want to break his career afterwards,” she said.

Debauched initiation weekends for new students, which often take place off campus and can boast almost limitless alcohol, are seen as another contributing factor. Applicants for grandes écoles have to go through a gruelling two-year preparatory course before applying, so when they get in, they “haven’t drunk for two years”, Ms Marechal said. Drunkenness was one of the key contributing factors to sexual violence, the observatory survey found. “Alcohol is used as an excuse,” she said.

“Most of the cases occurred during this process of integration,” said Anna Toumazoff, a feminist campaigner who helped encourage a wave of students to come forward on social media in February with accusations of assault. It involves “very young students being raped or attacked by the older students”, she said; she has so far been contacted by around 400 victims, most with stories of rape, and largely based at Sciences Po institutions.

These events don’t necessarily need to be shut down, stressed Ms Marechal. But the schools have tried to shrug off responsibility for making them safe, she said. “It’s their issue, too,” she said.

Critics say that elite universities have simply failed to take the problem seriously, fearful of reputational damage. “They are obsessed with rankings,” said Mr Raïs. “It would destroy the beautiful image that they try to build.” The universities too often put the onus on the victim to press their complaint through the criminal justice system, he said, rather than also investigating themselves.

In France, all public institutions are mandated to set up a dedicated office that investigates sexual violence complaints, explained Ms Marechal. But as some grandes écoles are private, this requirement does not apply across the board.

Adding to the pressure on France’s elite institutes has been a series of resignations at the Paris-based Sciences Po: first, in January, Olivier Duhamel, a widely known intellectual and the chair of the university’s governing board, stepped down following accusations by his stepdaughter of sexual abuse of her twin brother.

Then, in February, the university’s director, Frédéric Mion, also resigned after it emerged he had known about these incest allegations since 2018 but failed to act. “It has tarnished the university because knowledge of his [Duhamel’s] alleged conduct benefited from an omertà at Sciences Po,” said Matthew Fraser, an associate professor of media and communication at the American University of Paris and former student and lecturer at Sciences Po.

“It’s an indictment of French elites and the secrets they keep. Duhamel is an influential figure in media, academic and political elites in France. It then exploded into another issue about sexual abuse on campuses.”

The outpouring of accusations from students that followed Professor Duhamel’s resignation left the public “very, very shocked”, said Ms Toumazoff. “Because it’s Sciences Po. It’s supposed to be a progressive school, it’s supposed to train our politicians.” The symbolism is “terrible”, she said.

Sciences Po has said that its new interim director, Bénédicte Durand, has made “the fight against sexist and sexual violence” her top priority, and that a French government investigation had rejected claims of a “coordinated silence” on the Duhamel case.

But the universities at the centre of these accusations say it is unfair to imply they have turned a blind eye until now and reject the idea that there is an ingrained culture of sexual assault on their campuses. Sciences Po in Paris said it introduced a helpline, and a sexual violence monitoring unit, back in 2015. In 2019-20, this unit handled more than 40 cases, a spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for HEC said it had implemented a plan to combat sexual and gender-based violence since 2018; added psychiatrists and psychologists to its medical aid department to help victims; and was having its process for handling victims’ complaints audited.

“In recent years, not only at EDHEC but within society more broadly, people have started to open up about these issues, and unacceptable practices have been more easily denounced, which allows EDHEC to act and react accordingly,” said a spokeswoman for the business school. Among other things, the school runs regular campaigns to raise awareness of sexual violence, particularly at the beginning of the year. It also has a “trained listening unit” for student victims.

And ESSEC has, since the beginning of 2019, instituted a Charter for the Respect of Others, signed by all students, “with the aim of combating all hateful discourse and all forms of discrimination”, a spokeswoman said. Student victims are helped to take their complaints to the police, and schedules are rearranged to stop them ending up in the same classes as the accused.

As for Big Buck, these “sexist student parties” have not taken place for “several years” and “the clothing has been removed”, the spokeswoman said.

At least on some campuses, progress is being made, with sexual consent courses for new students becoming more common, said Ms Marechal. Two years ago, when she set up the observatory, they did not want to recognise it was a problem, she said, and “denied it completely”.

Now, because of intense media scrutiny, they are competing to prove how seriously they are taking the issue. “It’s completely reversed,” she said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Top French universities face wave of accusations

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