france

Sexting Sanofi spokesman fights firing with $1.5 million lawsuit

How France is confronting age-old attitudes toward the kind of behavior that triggered the worldwide #MeToo campaign

Bloomberg
10:33 March 6, 2018
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First he sent lewd texts. Then he got fired. Then he sued.

The case of an alleged sex pest at drug giant Sanofi is the latest example of how France is confronting age-old attitudes toward the kind of behavior that triggered the worldwide #MeToo campaign.

Jean-Marc Podvin, Sanofi's then-director of press relations, was caught in 2013 sending texts to his assistant, saying she was "sexy,"  and allegedly running Internet searches at work with keywords such as "topless"  and "adultery Paris,"  according to rulings from a French employment tribunal and an appeals court. A female press officer who worked for Podvin also alleged he exposed himself to her in his car.

Paris courts have already twice thrown out his unfair dismissal lawsuit requesting about 1.2 million euros ($1.5 million). While Podvin didn't respond to requests for comment, his lawyer said he is appealing the previously unreported Oct. 17 appellate ruling to France's top court and disputes all the evidence presented against him apart from the text messages, whose interpretation he disagrees with.

"The tone of the texts is a bit lewd but it's hard to say it amounts to much more than flirting," said Podvin's lawyer, Luc Migueres.

'Hot, Sexting'

In one text described in court rulings Podvin says: "it's hot, sexting."  He tells his female assistant "you're sexy," and remarks on her "very pretty top...and bottom."  In another, he notes - in English - that she was wearing "wonderful pants today" before adding, "magnifique."

Sanofi declined to comment directly on the court decisions yet said in a statement it "has always taken all the necessary measures to prevent sexual harassment, to put an end to it and sanction it."

The #MeToo movement, which also uses the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc in France, went viral in October after dozens of actresses came forward to accuse Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, and in some cases, rape.

Seven years ago, France had already been shaken to its core after allegations of sexual assault upended the career of French presidential hopeful and then-International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Now, #MeToo is galvanizing women to speak up ever more. The French interior ministry said in January that the amount of complaints lodged for sexual assault - excluding rape - in the last quarter of 2017 shot up by 31.5 per cent compared to a year earlier.

While sexual harassment at work is seen to be widespread - affecting as many as a third of French women according to a Feb. 28 Ifop poll - it has historically led to few criminal convictions in the country.

First enacted in 1992, France's criminal legislation on sexual harassment went through an upheaval 20 years later. It was first declared unconstitutional - creating a legislative gap that allowed suspects to avoid convictions - before being modified to widen its scope.

Under the latest version of the law, such harassment is defined as repeatedly imposing upon someone words or behavior that have a sexual connotation in a way that either is degrading or hostile. Such conduct, if committed by a person in a position of authority, can be punished by three years in jail and a fine of as much as 45,000 euros.

The effects of this tougher law recently started kicking in, with 110 convictions in 2015 and 126 in 2016, up from around 60 per year previously, according to French Justice Ministry spokesman Youssef Badr.

Jamila El Berry, a lawyer who four years ago secured the first criminal conviction for sexual harassment after the change in French law, says it used to take years before people spoke up about behavior that was often well known within companies yet rarely condemned.

"In the past, there would be a slap on the wrist and the person would carry on at the first opportunity on the next intern,"  El Berry said in an interview. "Now, the social norm is changing."

Ernestine Ronai, a member of the country's high committee for equality between women and men, says "such people keep at it so long as they're not caught."  Despite the rise in complaints, she warned that France is still suffering from an out-of-date mentality toward sexual harassment.

Often, it's been the woman who suffers after reporting harassment, she said, pointing to a 2015 survey by a French ombudsman. In 40 percent of cases, companies resolved complaints to the detriment of the victim.

According to the judges in the Podvin employment case, the assistant, who was on a temporary contract, said the compliments made her uncomfortable but that she felt obliged to respond kindly given that Podvin had promised to get her a full-time position. She also complained that he regularly took photos of her and pestered her with requests to go on a date.

Humiliation

Podvin didn't just seek compensation after he was fired for gross misconduct in August 2013. He also asked Sanofi to unfreeze his stock-options plans. The two-decade veteran at Sanofi lost his major claims, but received 1,500 euros to make up for what the court called the humiliation of being escorted out by security officers in front of colleagues.

The French pharmaceutical company suspended Podvin two working days after its personnel department was warned by the assistant, according to the dismissal letter, cited in the ruling. About two weeks later he was fired. In the meantime, other accusers came forward.

Susan Flaherty, a Sanofi press officer at the time, said that Podvin gave her a ride back after a June 2011 Black Eyed Peas concert in Paris and "he went on until about 500 meters from my apartment and put my hand on his penis, which was already outside his trousers."

Although Flaherty wanted him to stop, she tried to defuse the situation with humor because she felt threatened by the fact that he'd stopped his car so far away from her flat, according to her statement to Sanofi, quoted in the 2015 employment tribunal ruling.

'He Laughed'

"He laughed, put his penis back in his trousers and I reminded him that my boyfriend was waiting for me and was worrying about me. He dropped me off," she said in the statement.

Flaherty said she stood by her accusations and agreed to allow her name to be used for this article.

Migueres says Podvin considers the statement is her word against his and notes that it never led to a criminal complaint from either Sanofi or Flaherty. He said that while the incident wasn't detailed in the dismissal letter it was used against his client.

Migueres says his client is still unemployed "because he not only lost his job but also his reputation."