French authorities are taking another look at a woman’s rape accusation against the government’s budget chief, Gerald Darmanin.
The prime minister’s office has expressed support for budget minister Mr Darmanin – who denies the allegation – and said it would be up to the justice system to investigate.
Mr Darmanin is the highest-ranking French official accused of sexual misconduct since the scandals that started with Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in October snowballed into a movement affecting numerous industries and countries.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said an investigation of the allegation that Mr Darmanin, 35, raped a woman in 2009 was opened last year and closed because the accuser did not show up for questioning,
A new preliminary investigation was launched after the woman filed a new lawsuit and answered investigators’ questions this week, the prosecutor’s office said.
The accuser’s lawyer, Elodie Tuaillon-Hibon, said the alleged rape took place when her client sought legal advice from Mr Darmanin, who was at the time an up-and-coming official in France’s conservative Republicans party.
The woman is a former prostitute who was convicted in 2004 for blackmail, according to Ms Tuaillon-Hibon. She maintained she was wrongfully convicted and wanted Mr Darmanin’s help with the case when he allegedly forced her into sex, the lawyer said.
Mr Darmanin vigorously contests the claims and has filed a counter-suit alleging false denunciation. Speaking on radio network France-Info earlier this month, he acknowledged receiving a letter accusing him of abuse of power and possibly rape. He called the accusations “false”.
“I was nothing, I was a young man,” he said of the time period in which the assault allegedly occurred.
France has seen widespread outrage over sexual violence and harassment in recent months, as well as an increasing number of police reports for sexual misconduct. Unlike in the US, no powerful French figures have lost their jobs as a result.
Some famous French women, notably actress Catherine Deneuve, also have denounced the mounting “denunciations” as a form of puritanism that threatens sexual freedom.
Lawyer Tuaillon-Hibon, who specialises in sexual misconduct cases, said she has received “a lot more requests” for help in recent months and observed a growing sensitivity among police and prosecutors toward victims of alleged sexual abuse.
However, she said France needs clearer laws on what constitutes sexual consent.
“That’s the heart of this case,” she said.