A former French government minister on Thursday began serving three years in prison after a court found him guilty of raping an employee during “foot massages” in his office and at the home of his co-defendant.
The conviction of Georges Tron, 63, comes as France is confronting a wave of sexual assault allegations that has pushed the government to promise tougher laws to protect victims and punish assailants.
The verdict ended a decade-long legal saga that had initially seen Tron acquitted in a verdict given when his defence lawyer was the legal star Eric Dupond-Moretti, who is now justice minister.
Tron stood in silence as the verdict was announced late Wednesday by a Paris appeals court after 11 hours of jury deliberation, and handed his watch to his lawyer before police took him directly to prison to serve a five-year sentence, with two years suspended.
Tron was a cabinet minister under prime minister Francois Fillon when he was forced to resign in 2011 over allegations made by two women who worked for him while he was mayor of Draveil, outside Paris.
The women said that between 2007 and 2010, Tron, known for practising reflexology as a hobby, imposed foot massage sessions that would involve groping and digital penetration, at times turning into threesomes with his deputy Brigitte Gruel.
Virginie Ettel and Eva Loubrieu testified that they felt powerless to resist the politician over fear of losing their jobs. Ettel later resigned, while Loubrieu was fired after being accused of theft.
But the court convicted Tron of raping only Ettel, saying he had applied “psychological constraint” because she was his direct subordinate at city hall.
Gruel was handed a suspended two-year sentence.
“This is a relief for my client, and a message of hope for other women in this situation,” said Ettel’s lawyer Vincent Ollivier.
Tron was cleared of raping Loubrieu, who broke out in tears and rushed out of the courtroom upon hearing the verdict.
“It’s still a victory, but obviously a bittersweet one for her,” said Loubrieu’s lawyer Loic Guerin. “But still a victory because constraint, which we have long insisted on, has finally been recognised.”
– Laws under scrutiny –
Tron has long denied the allegations, saying that there was never any sexual connotations to the foot massages he often gave and that he was the victim of a political “plot” to unseat him.
At the Draveil city hall on Thursday, Tron’s deputy, Richard Privat, who in theory will take up his boss’s post, told AFP he “did not want to comment on this affair”.
Tron and Gruel were acquitted just over two years ago by a court that found no use of force and said the women appeared motivated by a desire for “vengeance.”
Prosecutors appealed the initial verdict delivered in 2018 and a new trial was ordered.
Dupond-Moretti, who as justice minister is now spearheading the government’s campaign for tougher laws against sexual assault, in particular against minors, had at the time declared “a victory for justice.”
The allegations against Tron emerged days after Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a powerful Socialist politician and former head of the International Monetary Fund, was arrested in New York in May 2011 on charges of trying to rape a hotel maid.
Despite later falling apart, the case led several women in France to come forward with their accounts of sexual assault and harassment.
On Thursday, National Assembly lawmakers began examining details of the new legislation, after criticism that current French law does not specifically make incest a crime.
The government wants to make 15 the minimum age of sexual consent, meaning sex with anyone younger would automatically be rape — an age that would be set at 18 for cases of incest.