In 2018, the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation launched an investigation with the General Inspectorate of Education, Sport and Research (IGÉSR), after being seized by the president of the University of Paris (merger in 2019 of the universities of Paris-Descartes, Paris-Diderot and the Institute of Physics of the Globe of Paris).
The latter followed a movement of group complaints filed a few months earlier by members of the Department of Psychoanalytic Studies of the UFR Institute of Humanities, Sciences and Societies (IHSS), concerning sexual and moral harassment and involving several members of this department, including the director of the UFR himself. Since then, the university has been trying to bury the case. Agathe Keller, a member of the inter-union union under the National Union of Scientific Research Workers (SNTRS-CGT) tells.
Libertarian Alternative: How can you explain the impunity with which the aggressors have been able to act within the university for many years?
Agathe Keller: The stories of blackmail and sexual harassment that led to the investigation of the General Inspectorate of Education, Sport and Research (IGÉSR) have been around for a very long time in the university, in higher education and research, as elsewhere in society. Based on the testimony we have gathered (and which are probably in the IGESR investigation, but we do not have access to it), it would appear that abuses of power often occurred on very fragile and isolated people, especially foreign students who came to Paris to study.
So the question would probably be the other way around: how is it that in the end we ended up knowing something about it? I believe that impunity has made some people so enterprising, to the point of assaulting not only vulnerable students but also a post-doctoral fellow, a lecturer in office, less inclined to be complacet. And then the gender equality pole of the former Paris-VII University was very active, and the atmosphere #MeToo had to play.
Finally, there was the suicide of a former student of the department, in 2017, who threw herself at the Seine with her thesis, in front of the university. All of this seems to have catalyzed the will to file a criminal complaint and then to testify to the number of abuses that existed in this department — abuse that was not merely sexual, and which the university had known well and for a long time — to force the presidency to act.
What explains the university’s inaction and lack of support for victims?
Agathe Keller: It’s a real question, she keeps asking us. To revolt us, too. One can make an answer in terms of the university’s internal policy: that successive presidencies were strongly supported by this department and therefore protected it in return, covering what was going on there. The stories of sexual assault that have leaked are just the tip of the iceberg of a more systemic dysfunction of the department and the laboratory associated with it.
It is a more comprehensive system of abuse of power that also relies on a misguided deviation from university democracy; with a questionable functioning, particularly in terms of recruitment. At this scale, perhaps the university could be considered criminally responsible. She would therefore seek to stifle the case…
But when we look at the governance of the current presidency, we wonder whether, in fact, it just doesn’t care. As long as it doesn’t tarnish her image, when we don’t talk about it, it just feels like she doesn’t care.
How do students and staff cope?
Agatha Keller: Very, very bad. The current health situation does not, of course, help. But nothing, absolutely nothing, despite the recommendations of the IGESR has been put in place to help the victims. Those who have had the courage to testify, resist, or speak out in protest are closed up when it comes to staff, and have been threatened when it comes to students, who are worried about being able to secure their diplomas, their scholarships… and to be sued for defamation.
But since the beginning of the year it’s changed a bit, a new class action in court has just been launched. The former director of the department has put online a website where he accuses at length and namely these colleagues of lying about him. They decided to sue him for defamation together. This union in action has kind of stunned everyone.
What has been the action of trade unions and trade unionists in this case?
Agathe Keller: First of all, historically, one of the harassers was an elected SNESUP member. She was a well-known voice of dissent in the laboratory. It had already been followed by elected officials from the CHSCT of the university, who had therefore long since alerted and relayed the dysfunctions of this department. I made history after the investigation.
When I had the opportunity to meet a group of students and staff mobilized but frightened by the lawsuits, I thought of an inter-union both as a lever and as a shield. Leverage for people outside the UFR and even the university to be interested in this story. Shield, to denounce facts without fear of prosecution. The support of the trade unions took a long time to put in place, but in the end, the distribution of our leaflet gave us all strengths.
In conjunction with the elected representatives of the CHSCT, this really gave weight to the collective’s demands. The joint reflection with seasoned elected officials and activists on what to do, what to make, was valuable and a source of hope. The stakes now are twofold. There is an institutional part: we have to find a way to break the system, to refound the UFR.
We are here at a time of crisis, with a tug-of-war between the university presidency, the component directorates, staff and students around the organisation of elections; we must fight to make the need for democratic procedures heard from below. On the other hand, it is a matter of accompanying victims who wish to do so, both in their personal trajectories and in legal proceedings. In both cases, we would very much like to have the support of the trade union centres, so to see!
Interview by Lucie (UCL Amiens)
Contacted by email, on March 19, 2021, the University of Paris did not respond to our request for an interview on this subject.