PARIS — Rape accusations against a newly appointed minister disrupted the start of President Emmanuel Macron’s second term on Monday, with the allegations coming amid a growing reckoning over sexism and sexual abuse by French political figures.
Two women have accused Damien Abad, the minister for solidarity and for disabled people, of raping them in 2010 and 2011, according to Mediapart, a French investigative news outlet that published a lengthy article about the accusations last week, without naming either accuser.
Mr. Abad, 42, has denied the allegations. The Times has not been able to independently verify the Mediapart report.
“I have never raped a woman in my life,” Mr. Abad told reporters on Monday from the Ain Department of France, where he is running for re-election in parliamentary elections in June. “Should an innocent man resign? I don’t think so.”
Mr. Abad, who has arthrogryposis, a congenital condition that limits his ability to move his joints, said in a statement that the acts he was accused of were implausible because he did not have the physical ability to perform them and that he could not have sex without a partner’s “full and complete consent.”
According to Mediapart, one of the women said that after a consensual encounter, he refused to stop when asked, while the other said she blacked out after having drinks with him and awoke in a hotel room, her body sore.
The government said it had not been aware of the allegations before the Mediapart article, even though an advocacy group said it had flagged one of the women’s experiences to the two political parties involved. Both political parties told Mediapart that they had not seen the emailed letter.
The accusations overshadowed the first meeting of France’s freshly appointed cabinet, raising questions over whether it had ignored warnings about Mr. Abad and drawing attention away from its efforts to address soaring inflation just weeks before elections that will determine control of Parliament.
The accusations also fueled longstanding recriminations against Mr. Macron from feminist groups, who accuse him of not living up to his vow to make crimes against women one of his top priorities. French feminists have been especially angered that he has kept ministers accused of sexist behavior or sexual violence in his government.
Sexism and sexual violence has become a growing concern in French politics. The High Council for Gender Equality, an official watchdog, noted in an annual report that sexist comments by male politicians were still commonplace and that political parties had barely started setting up channels enabling victims to report accusations.
“The political world still hasn’t experienced a real #MeToo,” the council wrote.
Several candidates in the parliamentary elections have dropped out over past behavior or complaints — including a far-left politician and one from Mr. Macron’s La République en Marche party, who was defended by a top official as an “honest man” despite a domestic violence conviction.
Olivia Grégoire, the government’s new spokeswoman, faced a barrage of questions over Mr. Abad at her first post-cabinet news conference.
She said that Élisabeth Borne, Mr. Macron’s new prime minister, had discussed the accusations with Mr. Abad over the weekend, that the government had a “zero-tolerance” policy for sexual criminals, and that violence against women was “at the heart of its priorities.”
“The government will tirelessly continue to encourage the liberation of women’s speech and to encourage women who have been subjected to violence to come forward,” Ms. Grégoire said.
But she added that Mr. Abad had never been convicted and had no legal cases pending against him.
“In this affair, as is often the case for these affairs, what is at stake is establishing the truth,” she said. “And establishing the truth is up to the legal system.”
Two of Mr. Macron’s top ministers — Gérald Darmanin and Éric Dupond-Moretti — had already drawn the ire of feminist groups when they were nominated in 2020. Both were reappointed last week.
Mr. Dupond-Moretti, the justice minister, has been accused of making insensitive, sexist remarks, while Mr. Darmanin, the interior minister, has faced rape accusations, although in January prosecutors recommended dropping an investigation into him.
The accusations against Mr. Abad date to 2010 and 2011, a time when he was a newly elected right-wing member of the European Parliament.
Mediapart did not give either woman’s real name. One, a 35-year-old who used to be a political activist, told the news outlet that she had met Mr. Abad in 2009 at a meeting and that he started regularly communicating with her several months later, insistently sending her text messages, some of them crude.
She said she had rebuffed his advances but finally met with him in January 2011. They had sex that was consensual at first but, she said, that he refused to stop when asked.
The woman told Mediapart that she spoke to the police a first time in 2012, but the case was dropped after she hesitated to press charges. She then filed an official complaint in 2017, but the investigation was dropped less than a year later, according to Mediapart.
The second woman, 41, told Mediapart that she had met Mr. Abad at a wedding in northern France and stayed in touch with him for professional reasons. In 2010, he invited her for dinner and drinks in Paris. She told Mediapart that Mr. Abad had offered her a glass of champagne and that she had blacked out after drinking it.
She later woke up in a nearby hotel room, “in a state of shock and deep disgust,” feeling groggy, her body aching, according to Mediapart. She quickly left, and told people close to her about her experience but did not file a complaint.
But when she saw news reports several weeks ago that Mr. Abad was expected to enter Mr. Macron’s new government, she decided to write about her experience in a letter to the Observatory of Sexual and Sexist Violence in Politics, an advocacy group created in February after nearly 300 women working in politics called for political parties and institutions to reckon with sexual violence in their midst.
The woman’s May 13 letter was forwarded to La République en Marche, and Les Républicains, the conservative party Mr. Abad used to belong to — he was the head of Républicain lawmakers in the lower house of Parliament until Mr. Macron poached him for his cabinet.
Mr. Abad has acknowledged a consensual relationship with the woman who filed the 2017 complaint but has denied all the other accusations. Top politicians and officials have said they did not know about the allegations until Mediapart reported them Saturday.
But reports since have suggested that it was an open secret among some members of Les Républicains that Mr. Abad had a reputation for behaving inappropriately with women around him.
Aurélien Pradié, the secretary general of Les Républicains, told Mediapart that Mr. Abad “always had a strange attitude with women” and that several party officials had known about the 2017 complaint but not done anything.
Fiona Texeire, a co-founder of the Observatory of Sexual and Sexist Violence in Politics, said that some women leave politics “because it is not an environment where you can work in perfect safety.”
“It’s an environment that remains extremely masculine in its practices and in its functioning,” she said, adding that it was sometimes hard for women in politics to push back against abuses of power because they might worry about tarnishing causes or parties. They also face the same struggles as other women with the legal system — approximately nine out of 10 women who experience rape never file a suit, according to official French statistics.
That made it all the more important for the government to be exemplary, she said.
“If we want things to change in French society on questions of sexual violence, the best example has to come from up top,” she said.