Sciences Po Paris is among the most prestigious higher education establishments in France. The political studies institute counts five presidents, 12 prime ministers and countless chief executives among its alumni. A place there almost guarantees a path towards the upper echelons of public life.
Yet the recent history of this institution is troubled. Its most celebrated director was found dead in New York after an encounter with male escorts a decade ago. Its chairman resigned amid allegations of incest in 2021. Claims surfaced that it had covered up years of sexual abuse among students. And now its former deputy director has found himself embroiled in a scandal, too, after confessing to spiking the drink of a female colleague.
The latest case has reawakened long-standing claims that the institution’s elitist and insular culture has bred a generation of French decision-makers who feel able to ignore the rules that apply to the rest of society.
“There is a sense of moral superiority which prevents them from questioning themselves,” says Anna Toumazoff, a feminist activist who launched an online campaign under the hashtag #sciencesporcs (Sciences pigs) against sexual violence at Sciences Po Paris and at nine provincial political studies institutes last year.
The campaign led to an avalanche of comments from students and former students revealing how they had been abused, often from the moment that they were strong-armed into participating in humiliating initiation rituals upon their arrival.
Many said their suffering went unheeded for years. Some felt unable to denounce acts of sexual violence for fear of being ostracized, shut out of the networks that regulate not only student life but also later careers in the French establishment.
Those who plucked up the courage to talk say few people were prepared to listen.
“If someone comes forward to say they have been raped, the directors of these institutes say, ‘We mustn’t be known as a school of rapists. Quick, quick, let’s cover it up,’ ” Toumazoff says.
A place there almost guarantees a path towards the upper echelons of public life.
Similar reactions are common throughout French society, in business and politics as well as higher education, she says. But they are particularly troubling at the country’s ten Sciences Po institutes “because they are training our future leaders”.
France has a multilayered higher educational system very different to Britain’s. At the bottom of the pile are the country’s overcrowded and underfunded universities, which take all school leavers who have passed their baccalauréat. Above them are the selective grandes écoles, which include business schools, engineering colleges and the Sciences Po institutes.
Sciences Po Paris is the most prestigious of all, counting President Macron among former students. When he went there in 2001, the director was Richard Descoings, who was widely depicted as the most brilliant and innovative figure in the French education system. He threw open the institute to people from underprivileged backgrounds and encouraged students to go abroad. But Descoings had a dark side to him. He took drugs, tried to chat up young male students and danced naked at wild parties, according to those who knew him. In 2012 he was found dead, stretched out on the bed of a New York hotel room shortly after a visit from two male escorts whom he had booked on the internet. Police concluded that he had had a heart attack. He was 53.
Descoings had two close associates, Olivier Duhamel, a respected political pundit who was his special adviser and later chairman of the governing board of Sciences Po Paris, and Laurent Bigorgne, his deputy.
Last year Duhamel, now 72, stood down after Antoine Kouchner, his stepson, accused him of sexually abusing and raping him as a child. Duhamel admitted as much but escaped prosecution under the French statute of limitation, the abuse having occurred in the 1980s.
Now it is Bigorgne’s turn to fall under the spotlight.
Last month he was put on trial in Paris for spiking the champagne of a female colleague at the Institut Montaigne, an influential, liberal think tank of which he became director in 2010 after his departure from Sciences Po Paris.
Sophie Conrad, head of public policy at the think tank, had gone to his flat for dinner in February when she began to feel dizzy. After contacting a friend, who in turn called Bigorgne, she managed to flee and to alert the police. Placed under arrest, Bigorgne admitted to having put Ecstasy in her glass without her knowing.
He told investigators that he was on cocaine at the time, exhausted by his workload and close to burnout. He said he had drugged Conrad because he had wanted a heart-to-heart “talk” with her. Bigorgne was charged with administering a harmful substance and at the trial before Paris criminal court, prosecutors called for a lenient sentence — a suspended jail term and a €5,000 fine. The court will give judgment this month.
Conrad expressed incredulity. How could Bigorgne put Ecstasy — France’s most commonly used date-rape drug — into her drink without being charged with plotting to rape or to assault her, she asked. The answer, Arié Alimi, her lawyer, suggested, was that Bigorgne had support in high places, right up to the Élysée Palace.
Macron often called on him for advice. He had asked Bigorgne to work on his manifesto before the spring presidential election that returned him to office. Bigorgne was also reportedly being lined up for the post of education minister, a plan that had to be abandoned when the champagne-spiking scandal became public.
Were investigators put under pressure to remove any reference to rape or assault on the chargesheet to avoid a scandal that could, indirectly, have tainted Macron? Alimi believes so. “What you should know is that at the time Laurent Bigorgne was writing the education part of Emmanuel Macron’s manifesto and that he was director of the Institut Montaigne, which is the interface between the political and financial powers-that-be in France.”
He told the court that a senior police officer and a Paris prosecutor had intervened in the case for “political” reasons to ensure that Bigorgne was not charged with a sex crime. The state prosecution office denied there had been any such intervention and denounced his claims as “violent and unjust”.
Alimi traced Bigorgne’s behavior back to his time with Descoings and Duhamel at Sciences Po Paris. “These were people at the firmament of financial and political power. And when you are in a situation of power, there is a temptation to break taboos that other people don’t break. There was a dimension of freeing themselves from taboos and of placing themselves in a situation of hubris.”
As it was at the top of the Sciences Po institutes, so it was among students, at least judging by a government report ordered after the comments posted on Toumazoff’s #sciencesporcs hashtag provoked widespread consternation last year.
The report stopped short of backing claims of a “rape culture” in the institutes, but described a culture of drunkenness and “integration rituals” for freshers. They were forced to eat rotten food, to undress in public, to say whether they had lost their virginity or not, to drink large quantities of alcohol, the report said. “Sexist domination” was present at rituals such as the “sluts tribunal” at which freshers were invited to use a megaphone to shout out the names of second-year students with whom they had slept.
“We mustn’t be known as a school of rapists. Quick, quick, let’s cover it up.”
The report also highlighted the annual sports competition between France’s ten Sciences Po institutes, which it said gave rise to “excessive consumption of alcohol, salacious songs with sexist and homophobic connotations, sexist practices like the ‘grand slam’, which consists of having sexual relations with a female student from each institute, repeated touching without consent … multiple cases of harassment”.
Iris Maréchal, chairwoman of the Student Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Higher Education, who went to Sciences Po Paris, can recall male students betting on how many of their female counterparts they could kiss at the event. She says alcohol, peer pressure and the desire to be “part of the group” made it difficult for female students to stop, or to reveal, sexual assaults.
She adds that the Parisian institute’s lecturers were also known for making unwanted advances, at least until the recent past.
“We went to the teachers’ homes once a term, usually about 15 of us,” she says. The dinners themselves passed off without incident, but helped to create a context in which lecturers thought it acceptable to invite young female students out, this time on their own. The students were vulnerable, she suggests, with lecturers able to “exercise power” and “hierarchical ascendancy”.
Marine Dupriez, the founder of Safe Campus, a platform that advises higher education establishments on how to fight against sexist and sexual violence, says the issue affects all French higher education establishments, but is particularly acute in les grandes écoles, where students live on campuses, know each other, party together and join the same associations. She says the environment dissuaded the victims of sexual violence from denouncing their attackers for fear of being rejected by the rest of the year. Perpetrators felt encouraged, on the other hand. “There is perhaps a feeling of impunity … a sense that you are untouchable, which is not entirely false.
“The fact of belonging to this environment generates the idea ‘I am protected’.”
Dupriez says progress is nevertheless being made. Humiliating integration rituals have been banned, establishments have started to train staff to handle rape and sexual assault claims, and campaigners are being asked to intervene to explain to students the notion of consent, which many still considered “not too serious”. Sciences Po Paris insists that it has moved to stamp out the practices that gave rise to sexual violence and has ushered in a new culture. The dinners at lecturers’ homes have ended, for instance, Maréchal says.
Toumazoff is unconvinced, however. “Nothing much has changed,” she says. “And where changes have occurred, it is only because of public pressure following a media scandal.”
Adam Sage is the Paris correspondent for The Times of London. He has covered five presidential elections and countless scandals