In a #MeToo-like wave with a hashtag that combines a university’s name and the French word for pigs, students at Sciences Po Toulouse are calling attention to a widespread problem in French universities
In early February, Anna Toumazoff, a 25-year-old French feminist activist and former Sciences Po Toulouse student, posted an Instagram story on her account ‘memes pour cool kids feministes’. This was not unusual; it’s a popular account filled with political and feminist memes which has garnered 135,000 followers – what was surprising was the content of the story.
Anna shared an open letter by Juliette, a 20-year-old student at Sciences Po Toulouse, claiming she had been raped by an older student three years ago during her integration. In the letter she describes the French university as being a “man’s world”, where “men shine and women are pushed into the shadows”. On February 8, Anna posted Juliette’s letter on her grid and started a hashtag, #SciencesPorcs – a play on the name of the university and #BalanceTonPorc (translating to ‘denounce your pig’), France’s version of #MeToo which began in October 2017. Anna says that’s when “everything happened”.
Her hashtag went viral across social media platforms, trending on Twitter in France and sparking a wave of similar testimonies about sexual violence at Sciences Po, some of which even accuse the institution of a cover-up. Since then, Frédéric Mion, the director of Sciences Po has resigned (however, this was due to a different scandal: his knowledge of child sex abuse allegations against the former president of the board that oversees Sciences Po) and students have been calling on the institution for better accountability and justice for survivors.
Anna says she initially posted Juliette’s letter in order to “name and shame” Sciences Po Toulouse and make them “obligated to react”, but she quickly realised that the problem wasn’t limited to just one institution. Sciences Po Toulouse is one of ten political studies institutes (IEPs) around France which share the name Sciences Po. They are named after Sciences Po Paris, otherwise known as the Paris Institute of Political Studies, a prestigious higher education institute famed for teaching “l’élite de la nation” (the country’s elite): students here are the politicians, diplomats and CEOs of the future. The current president, Emmanuel Macron, studied there, as did four other presidents. There are seven Sciences Po Paris campuses spread across France as well as the ten IEPs. Testimonies have flooded in from all of them. So far, Anna has received 400 messages from former or current students detailing their own experiences, but there are around 200 in her Instagram DM’s which she is yet to check and she continues to receive more. “I wasn’t expecting it to be exactly the same for all the Sciences Pos,” she says over the phone.
The testimonies include allegations of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Often, claims involve older students targeting younger ones, who Anna says are “just kids, sometimes arriving at the school at 16 or 17 years old”. Not only was there a culture where sexual violence was normalised, but administrations did very little to hold the perpetrators to account. “In almost all the testimonies I have (received), Sciences Po were aware of what happened, and the point is that to preserve their reputation they preferred to keep some rapists (at the university),” explains Anna. There are reports that perpetrators were transferred to other campuses instead of facing disciplinary procedures, and some survivors have been accused of defamation. “The victims are learning that you’ve got to be silent in this world of power. And then these students (who have been accused of sexual violence) are entering into the political world.”
Zoé, 21, is in her third year at Sciences Po Lille. In December 2018 she attended a party outside Lille where all the students had been invited – she was 19, and had just started at the university. “There was a lot of alcohol and I was quite drunk,” she says. A male student in the same year started talking to her. “He kissed me several times even though I was not in a place where I was able to consent, then he tried to bring me to a more silent place, but a friend of mine saw me and rescued me.” She thinks that he “would have tried more” had her friend not been there. Zoé says she only told her close friends about the incident because she was afraid and was suffering from anxiety and depression at the time. “I did not want to acknowledge that (what he did) was not OK.”
Zoé’s story is one of many which highlight a culture of impunity across the Sciences Pos. “They (male Sciences Po students) feel like they can do anything without being punished, so they don’t care about causing hurt or damage,” she says. The hashtag #SciencesPorcs has made her feel relieved that she can finally talk about what happened. “It proves to me that I’m not alone, that I can survive it and put this episode behind me… Sciences Po now needs to listen to everyone willing to testify about all the misbehaviour inside the schools.”
Testimonies like Zoé’s are nothing new, says Clementine, a student at Sciences Po Grenoble. “There have been denunciations (of sexual violence) before,” she tells me over Zoom. The 20-year-old is a member of En Tout Genre, a queer feminist association at Sciences Po Grenoble campaigning for better support for survivors. “I think that one of the important things in the testimonies we’ve been reading is that the heads of the schools know about it, and they still don’t do anything about it. And that’s a big part of why we’re so adamant on making changes right now.”
Clementine describes a very specific Sciences Po school spirit that “feeds into rape culture”, which echoes what Juliette wrote in her letter. “There’s this extra masculine space which you have to navigate, because it’s politics, and because it’s about being the elite,” she explains. “Even though most of our students are women, you can still very much feel the male domination whenever you’re in class.”
Sara* and Amy* agree. Both 19-years-old, they are members of another feminist association at a different Sciences Po (which they don’t want to reveal). “This school was built to cater to a specific kind of student: French, white, male, rich, able-bodied,” they told me via email. “For survivors on this campus, knowing that this administration would rather protect predators makes being on campus feel unsafe. A lot of our friends have experienced some form of sexual assault – and for many of us, we never comprehended that we had been assaulted until way after it happened.”
“There’s this extra masculine space which you have to navigate, because it’s politics, and because it’s about being the elite”
Clementine explains that En Tout Genre has had to deal with countless cases of sexual assault at Sciences Po Grenoble because students no longer trust the administration to help them. “I think we’ve been doing their job for way too long,” she says. “I have testimonies of victims who have sent emails to the head of our school and have never been answered. And it’s been months.” As Clementine points out, their association has never had any training, so they’re having to “learn how to deal with getting testimonies of sexual violence when sometimes you’re a survivor yourself”. The worst part, she adds, is “living with the knowledge that a lot of people who we have to go to class with are allegedly guilty of sexual violence”.
I was an exchange student at Sciences Po Paris Campus de Reims from 2017 to 2018. I came to know the campus well, situated in a 17th-century Jesuit college in Reims, a city that is encircled by vineyards and rolling hills. Although my experience was a positive one, like many universities there was an undeniably toxic fraternity culture that involved initiation ‘games’ and a lot of parties. But all the parties I went to felt safe. At the beginning of the year, we were made to sit in a lecture hall to watch an animated video on consent. Released in 2015 by Thames Valley Police, the video used a cup of tea as a metaphor for sex – why would you force someone to drink a cup of tea if that person said they didn’t want one, it asked. Some students said there had been rumours of a rape case a couple of years ago, which meant that the school showed the video to all new students. Whispers of sexual assault usually centred around social events, such as the notorious inter-IEP Crit, a three-day sporting tournament between all of the Sciences Pos, which has now been cancelled due to the uproar over the testimonies. As one male former student from Sciences Po Toulouse described it to the French newspaper l’Humanité: “It’s a big party: three days of alcohol, sport, sex and drugs.” It was also where sexist behaviour bubbled up to the surface for all to see.
Testimonies from previous Crits include groping, non-consensual kissing and rape. This type of behaviour was encouraged by competitions such as trying to kiss at least one person from each Sciences Po (the “little slam”), while sex with students from each one would earn you the “grand slam”. While I never went to the Crit, this has been confirmed by several students I spoke to. According to the article in l’Humanité, during the 2017 Crit, students from Sciences Po Lyon shot girls with water pistols filled with their own urine.
The MiniCrit is similar but on a smaller scale, with just the seven Sciences Po Paris campuses coming together at the end of the academic year when everyone lets their hair down after exams are finished. Milvia, 24, a former Sciences Po Reims student, attended the MiniCrits held in 2017 and 2018. “I personally felt safe at both of them because I went with a group of very safe friends and I was in the queer community. In my case, it was fun.” However, she says the experience was different for straight people, particularly the parties they went to. “I could feel the sexual tension in the air – but not a good sexual tension. (It was) like a horny, cis, straight male ‘lemme fuck every woman in this room’ type of tension, which is definitely not the safe type.”
Milvia describes other problems, such as the sports chants being “very problematic: neo-colonial, racist, sexist”, adding “I’m sure the Crit is just 100 times worse than what we experienced there”. Although, she says that cancelling the event will not make the problem of sexual abuse on campus go away. “We need to have an open discussion on the Crit and recentre it in another way. Sports competitions are fun, but the MiniCrit and Crit feel more like a fraternity type of thing. It’s the culture around it that’s unsafe and I don’t think stopping (the Crit) will destroy that culture.”
Clementine says it’s important to realise that rape and sexual violence happen everywhere, not only at these big events: “A lot of what we’ve been seeing in the press and a lot of what is being talked about is violence (by) students on students. But from the testimonies that we’ve got, there’s also violence (by) teachers on students.” She refers to a scandal at the beginning of the year involving a teacher who works at another school on the same campus as Sciences Po Grenoble. “He was accused by more than 20 people of sexual harassment,” says Clementine, adding that this was “public knowledge for months”. Despite this, Sciences Po Grenoble let him give a lecture to masters students. “I think one thing that is missing for me is the idea of protecting the students.” When approached for comment, Sciences Po Grenoble responded: “We are not authorised to comment on individual cases under judicial scrutiny.”
In a statement issued in February, Sciences Po Paris wrote that it “fully supports the victims of gender-based and sexual violence within the various IEPs and the liberation of their voice. The institution also re-emphasises commitment to the fight against all attacks on the integrity of people. Our mobilisation is total.” It added that “student life regulations have imposed measures to ensure the physical or moral integrity of participants at all events since 2016”, and a commission will be set up to reinforce their existing action plan on gender equality.
They also mention a helpline, created in 2015, for students to report incidents of sexual violence, which Sara* and Amy* both say “none of us had ever heard of before”. Even if they had, “there is a significant lack of trust in the administration to actually effectuate it”. What do they want Sciences Po to do now? “Curriculum development, workshops, admitting guilt and stepping into accountability.” Most importantly, they want all abusers to be expelled.
Clementine agrees that all of the Sciences Pos must do more than just condemn acts – they have to condemn the people committing those acts. “There’s this idea that, because we’re supposed to be the future elite, you can’t denounce what a person did to you because you’re going to ruin their future. Somebody’s future career is more important than your safety and your pain as a victim.” This has, understandably, had an impact on the mental health of survivors. Anna says that suicide has featured in some of the testimonies she has received, from “victims who attempted suicide, and (from) those who knew of people who committed suicide because of (experiencing sexual violence).”
Many view #SciencesPorcs as France’s second #MeToo wave, a watershed moment which could ignite change when it comes to dealing with sexual violence at universities – not just at Sciences Po. Since the hashtag started trending, three investigations have been launched, one looking into Juliette’s alleged rape and two into sexual assault at Sciences Po Grenoble. But Sara and Amy are doubtful that this will lead to change. “Every time you try to get any solid action, it gets deflected,” they write. Clementine is more optimistic: “I hope it is (the start of change at Sciences Po), with my whole heart, because I think it’s long overdue.” But, she says, “This is only the beginning of the real fight.”
*Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity