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The chairman of a top equality watchdog created by the French government is facing calls to resign over what employees call sexist and racist comments.

Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette, head of the High Council for Equality (HCE), denied accusations over her allegedly unabashedly “offensive” remarks and that she had a “toxic” management style as “a desire to destabilise” the consultative body, which reports to the French prime minister.

In a six-page letter dated Jan 2 2024, revealed by investigative website Mediapart, the employees of the council’s general secretariat claim to have “frequently witnessed remarks made by the president and co-presidents that border on legality”.

HCE’s main mission is to “come up with recommendations to combat sexism, gender-based violence and to promote equality in the workplace”.

But she and her team have a disturbing habit of disguising “abusive comments” as humour in a way that contributed to “trivialising and spreading rape culture and making victims feel guilty”, the letter says.

They are also accused of making “racist and Islamophobic comments” and stigmatising LGBTQ people despite repeated warnings.

The letter alleges that Ms Pierre-Brossolette, 69, long a well-known political journalist and magazine editor, takes “no precautions whatsoever” to avoid offending those she speaks to at work and in public.

“What’s more, these statements, made in the presence of outside figures, tarnish the credibility and image of our organisation and the people who represent it,” says the letter.

Reproaching her for “racist remarks”, signatories cited by Mediapart say that on several occasions after 2022 she made inappropriate comments about the physical appearance and ethnic origin of her grandchildren’s nanny of African origin – notably about her “weight and large chest”.

Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette

Sylvie Pierre-Brossolette takes ‘no precautions whatsoever’ to avoid offending people, it is claimed – JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP via Getty

They complain about her description of one female historian philosopher as “a respectable feminist, not like the crazies we find these days”, the “hysterical feminists”.

In September 2023, at the HCE offices, she also allegedly criticised a supposed “transsexual lobby that mutilates little girls”.

Signatories also complain about the equality watchdog boss’s alleged rejection of inclusive writing – which the HCE is officially supposed to uphold – in its own communication and a boycott of the term “patriarchy”.

Staff told Mediapart they also took issue with Ms Pierre-Brossolette’s apparent leniency towards Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011 when the ex-IMF chief was arrested in New York over sexual assault, kidnapping and attempted rape allegations.

“This is three tragedies in one. That of a man brought down by sordid accusations, that of a party losing its best candidate, and that of France, whose image has been tarnished,” she wrote in Le Point magazine at the time.

“What image are we giving to the world when the entire planet’s televisions show a prestigious Frenchman…treated no better than the crooks of colour who were brought before the judge before and after him?” she wrote.

“For Dominique and his family, it is a terrible, almost unbearable ordeal.”

‘Harmful working environment’

The employees also point to behaviour that has allegedly “gradually led to the creation of a harmful working environment and the emergence of a collective malaise”.

The letter says there had been eight cases of sick leave over 18 months.

Her reaction to one employee’s complaints of workplace distress was to hand her a tranquiliser pill in front of staff.

In a statement to AFP, Ms Pierre-Brossolette said management “listened carefully to the employees”.

“We are committed to finding solutions that will satisfy them and enable us to work for women’s rights” she said.

She said the accusations reflected a desire to destabilise the work of the council, “the fight against the exploitation of women” and “the noxious effects of patriarchy”, and that she was mulling filing a complaint.

Created in 2013, the HCE is tasked with, among other things, drafting an annual report on sexism in France and assessing public policies on gender equality.

Staff have repeatedly complained about the “toxic” environment, say reports, to no avail.

In an email sent on Monday to the members of the council, the employees of the general secretariat wrote that the situation had become untenable.

“We can no longer work with either the president or most of the co-presidents,” said one of the signatories on condition of anonymity.

One employee told Mediapart that the toxic atmosphere had created “a sense of cognitive dissonance between what we stand for and what we’re forced to endure”.

“We write in our reports that it is more urgent than ever to listen to what victims have to say, to fight against abuses of power, and now we are experiencing exactly the opposite of what we write,” another was cited as saying by AFP.

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