The legacy of the late French pop star Serge Gainsbourg is being re-examined in light of the #MeToo movement and some are now calling him the Harvey Weinstein of the French music industry.
Gainsbourg, a small, grizzled man who became an unlikely but undeniable sex symbol, was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants and was scarred by his experience of evading the Nazis during World War II. He passed away in 1991 at the age of 62, and is best known outside of France for his erotic — and, according to many, obscene — duet with Jane Birkin, “Je T’aime... Moi Non Plus.”
#JaneBirkin and #SergeGainsbourg pictured together at home in Paris, France, circa 1972. pic.twitter.com/AsvxkKTJ7B— FootballRetroPlus (@robertmdaws) September 24, 2020
While France has long had the reputation of being more tolerant toward what would be considered transgressive sexual behavior than the US, last week, he was called out by Lio, a 58-year-old French singer who was herself a pop icon during the 80s. During an interview with a French radio station, she said, “I have gone off Gainsbourg, who is quite simply a harasser... [He was] not cool with girls... a Weinstein of songs... he has become an aristocrat of French music but I am not going to pay homage to him. I have experienced for myself his behavior,” The Daily Mail reported.
Her remarks have inspired a new look Gainsbourg, who was known for romancing beautiful women, some of whom he married, like Birkin, as well as for dating teenage girls. His family has had no comment so far.
In 1984, he recorded a risque duet with his 14-year-old daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, called “Lemon Incest.” The video released with this song shows them lounging together, their limbs entwined, on a giant bed. Said to be drinking heavily in his later years, he told Whitney Houston, in English, “I want to f**k you,” on a television talk show and also groped actress Catherine Deneuve on television.
But in France in the 80s, such behavior was dismissed with a gallic shrug, and he was eulogized by then-president Francois Mitterand, who compared him to poet Charles Baudelaire and said, “He elevated song to the level of art.”
A few decades has made a great deal of difference, as more women are coming forward with tales of sexual abuse at the hands of revered French figures. The New York Times reported in February on how Gabriel Matzneff, a once-beloved intellectual who boasted of his pedophilia, detailing in his writing how he sexually abused children as young as eight, went into hiding to avoid testifying in court on charges of promoting pedophilia. A memoir by one of his underage victims, Vanessa Springora, called Consent, helped spark the investigation. It was announced last week that he no longer received a government stipend for writers.
Other well-known French figures have been accused of being sexual predators in recent years, including former president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who was accused of groping a reporter.
Still, some prominent Frenchwomen have declined to be identified with #MeToo, among them Deneuve, who signed a letter 2018, saying the movement had gone too far and confused victimization with expressions of sexuality.
Whether Gainsbourg is fondly remembered as a suave Don Juan or a dirty and predatory old man may depend on if other women come forward to accuse the late singer of abuse. Any condemnation of Gainsbourg is a clear sign that “les temps” are changing in France.