The #metoo movement is bringing down politicians in Europe, too

REUTERS/Hannah Mckay
Britain’s defense secretary Michael Fallon resigned last month over reports that he couldn’t keep his hand off the knee of a female journalist.

Al Franken is on his way out. John Conyers is already gone. So is Arizona Republican Trent Franks. In Alabama, Roy Moore has gone down in flames.

And multiple allegations of harassment against President Trump are gaining new attention. They certainly represent something bigger than “fake news.”

This national catharsis over sexual misconduct by powerful men does feels like a unique moment in America. But the #metoo movement is not limited to the United States. Parallel processes have been unfolding in Europe. This is a phenomenon bigger than Franken, or Trump or Moore.

It will take time for Europeans and Americans to sort out how to deal with simple boorishness, and what level of harassment must carry serious penalties. As in the U.S., new cases arising in Europe are frequently about abuse of power, and sometimes about outright criminal behavior. When caught, offenders try to fall back on the “boys behaving badly” defense.

That’s what happened to Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, who resigned last month over reports that he couldn’t keep his hand off the knee of a female journalist, and other questionable behavior toward women reporters. Fallon acknowledged that what once might have seemed acceptable in the corridors of power wasn’t anymore. 

But that was just the tip of the British iceberg. 

Another Cabinet secretary, international trade minister Mark Garnier, has acknowledged once sending a female staff member out to buy sex toys. His defense is that it was just “good-natured high jinks.” Reports of harassment are rife in Parliament, including a case in which a woman staff member was ignored despite reporting a sexual assault four times

Staff members in Parliament reportedly have kept a list of “sex pests” that includes 50 names.

And Paul Golding, the leader of the far-right Britain First movement, has been put under investigation for a possible sexual assault. Britain First gained attention in the U.S. recently when Trump retweeted inflammatory videos posted by Golding’s deputy, Jayda Fransen. In Golding’s case, Fransen reportedly tried to persuade the victim to stay quiet

France hasn’t seen the same level of drama, but one former assistant in parliament says women kept an informal list and verbally warned each other about certain members of parliament.

Last year, Denis Baupin resigned from a leadership role in the French Parliament over accusations of sexual harassment. Elections earlier this year brought many more women into parliament. They now make up about 40 percent of parliament’s members.

And across French society, officials say reports of sexual harassment are up sharply in recent months as the #metoo movement spread to Europe.

In countries where abuses haven’t surfaced at high levels of government, they often have in institutions such as the military, the arts and media.

Germany has started reforms to stop abuse and harassment in its army, where about 11 percent of the soldiers are women. Reforms were launched after reports surfaced of abuses at a special operations training center in southern Germany. One woman recruit said she was forced to pole dance in the common room of the barracks. And supervisors forced recruits to strip, and then took photos as they touched the breasts and genital areas of women recruits. 

A recent survey found that nearly half of German women report having been sexually abused or harassed. 

Scandinavian countries, long a bastion of gender equality, aren’t immune. In Norway, reports of harassment in media organizations were followed by a petition signed by nearly 500 women complaining of harassment and abuse in the acting profession.

Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, is an unusual politician. Assaulted by a knife-wielding boyfriend in her early 20s, she went on to be the U.N.’s special representative on sexual violence in conflicts. As foreign minister, she has crafted a “feminist foreign policy.” But she shook Europeans this fall by announcing that she, too, had been subject to an unwanted advance – at an official European Union meeting, no less.

If there is anyone in Europe the opposite of Wallstrom, it has to be former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Now 81 and out of office, Berlusconi is notorious for his wild “bunga bunga” parties. He still faces trial for allegedly bribing people to stay quiet over accusations he paid for sex with young women. That is in addition to his conviction for tax fraud. 

But politically, he’s on the comeback trail. Last month, his movement won regional elections in Sicily. It’s not without reason that President Trump has been compared by many to Berlusconi — both rich men with a populist message who have survived behavior that would sink other politicians.

History professor Anna Foa finds something peculiarly Italian in Berlusconi’s staying power. Breaking rules brings votes, she said. “Everyone wants to be the one who breaks the rules and gets away with it, and Berlusconi did this in a sphere that people like best — the sexual sphere,” she told Reuters.

So, to put the choice in sharp relief, do we want to be more like Italy? Or Sweden? Do we want our politicians to be more like Berlusconi? Or Wallstrom? 

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