President Emmanuel Macron of France this week condemned what he called a “manhunt” targeting Gérard Depardieu, the embattled French actor whose worldwide fame has been tarnished in recent years by allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
Macron’s comments, which prompted swift criticism, came after a documentary that aired in France this month showed the actor making crude sexual and sexist comments during a 2018 trip to North Korea.
Depardieu, 74, has faced renewed scrutiny in the wake of the documentary, including new accusations of sexual assault, the stripping of several international honors and the removal of a likeness of him from the Musée Grévin, a Paris wax museum. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Rima Abdul Malak, France’s culture minister, said she was “disgusted” by Depardieu’s comments in the documentary and that disciplinary proceedings would determine whether he should also lose his Legion of Honor, France’s highest award.
But in a television interview on Wednesday evening, Macron mounted a staunch defense of Depardieu, who was once one of France’s most prominent and prolific leading men. Macron said that Depardieu “makes France proud” and castigated an “era of suspicion” against prominent artistic or cultural figures.
“One thing you’ll never see me in is a manhunt,” Macron told France 5 television, calling himself an “admirer” of Depardieu.
As France’s president, Macron is the grand master of the order of the Legion of Honor, an award created by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 for “outstanding merit” in a field and given to Depardieu in 1996. Macron said his culture minister had overstepped “a bit too much.”
“Am I going to start stripping the Legion of Honor from artists or officials when they say things that shock me?” Macron said. “The answer is no.”
“You can accuse someone — maybe there are victims, and I respect them, and I want them to be able to defend their rights,” he added. “But there is also a presumption of innocence,” he said.
Macron’s comments reflected the mixed reaction to the #MeToo movement in France, where the reckoning with sexism was hailed by feminist groups, but also fueled worries over the influence of puritanical sexual mores and cancel culture imported from America.
France’s movie industry has grappled with several high-profile accusations of sexual abuse in recent years and taken steps to address them. But the country has also given a warm reception to artists accused of abuse — including Johnny Depp and Louis C.K. — exposing a cultural divide with the United States.
Feminists and leftist politicians said on Thursday that they were appalled by Macron’s comments.
“Manhunts remain prohibited. The hunt for women, on the other hand, remains open,” Osez Le Féminisme, a feminist group, said on social media, while Sandrine Rousseau, a Green lawmaker, called Macron’s comments “yet another insult to the movement to let victims of sexual violence speak out.”
François Hollande, Macron’s predecessor as president, criticized him for extolling Depardieu’s acting instead of expressing support for victims of sexual crimes.
“No, we are not proud of Gérard Depardieu,” Hollande told France Inter radio, noting that Macron once called gender equality and the fight against sexism a top priority. “And that’s how he treats the issue of Gérard Depardieu?” Hollande said.
But he has faced a growing number of sexual abuse accusations in recent years.
In interviews in April with Mediapart, an investigative news site, 13 women — actresses, makeup artists and production staff — accused Depardieu of making inappropriate sexual comments or gestures during film shoots. Two other women made similar accusations in interviews this summer with France Inter.
Depardieu has been charged with rape and sexual assault in one case, which involves Charlotte Arnould, a French actress who says he sexually assaulted her in Paris in 2018, when she was 22, during informal rehearsals for a theater production.
Depardieu has not been convicted in connection with any of the accusations, and he has categorically denied any wrongdoing.
“I have never, ever abused a woman,” he wrote in a rare letter to the newspaper Le Figaro in October.
“All my life, I’ve been provocative, outgoing, sometimes crude,” Depardieu wrote, adding an apology for “acting like a child who wants to amuse the gallery.” But, he added, “I’m neither a rapist nor a predator.”
The documentary that set off a new wave of scrutiny aired this month on France 2 and features previously unseen footage of Depardieu on a 2018 trip to North Korea, where he is seen repeatedly making extremely crude and uninhibited sexual and sexist comments about women.
The documentary suggests that sexual jokes, comments and attitudes by Depardieu on movie sets were commonplace and widely-known, but that the French movie industry brushed them off.
Four women accuse Depardieu of inappropriate comments or sexual misconduct in the documentary, including Arnould and Hélène Darras, an actress who says he sexually assaulted her on a 2008 film set and who filed a suit against him in September. Depardieu has not been charged in that case.
This week, extra woes for Depardieu piled up quickly. The Musée Grévin said that his wax statue, which first entered the museum in 1981, had been removed. A spokeswoman said that this was “following reactions from visitors who were very shocked by the actor’s comments” and who had then verbally abused employees.
On Wednesday, Ruth Baza, a Spanish journalist, told the newspaper La Vanguardia that Depardieu had kissed and groped her without her consent when she was in Paris in 1995 to interview him for a magazine piece.
Like many public officials in France — Macron first and foremost — Abdul Malak, the culture minister, said that she was “against cancel culture.”
“We are not going to stop watching his movies,” she told France 5 television of Depardieu last week. But she said his comments in the documentary could constitute sexual harassment and were “intolerable,” reflecting badly on France.
“He is such a monument of world cinema,” Abdul Malak said, adding that she had received messages from ministers and other cultural figures from around the world “who are shocked, who say, ‘To us, he was such a symbol of France.’”