Top French university rocked by domestic violence scandal, antisemitism allegations

As Sciences Po chief quits over accusations, government assails school after pro-Palestinian students blocked Jewish classmate from entering lecture hall because ‘she’s a Zionist’

Students at the entrance of the Sciences Po in Paris, France, on March 13, 2024. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)
Students at the entrance of the Sciences Po in Paris, France, on March 13, 2024. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

PARIS, France (AFP) — An elite French university on Wednesday was dragged into the national spotlight, when its director quit over alleged domestic violence and a pro-Palestinian demonstration sparked accusations of antisemitism.

Mathias Vicherat, director of the prestigious Sciences Po school located on Paris’s Left Bank, said he was stepping down after being ordered to stand trial in a domestic violence case.

Students demanded his resignation after he and his partner Anissa Bonnefont were briefly detained in December, each accusing the other of domestic violence.

Sciences Po, founded in 1872, is a hugely influential cornerstone of French elite education and a cradle of political power. Its alumni list features President Emmanuel Macron and several former French and foreign leaders, as well as top names in literature, media, culture and fashion.

Vicherat, 45, said in a message sent to faculty he was resigning to “protect” the school from any fallout of the domestic violence case.

“What counts here is not me but the institution,” he said.

President of Sciences Po Mathias Vicherat arrives for a state dinner at the Grand Trianon estate near the Palace of Versailles, south west of Paris, France, on July 18, 2022. (Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP/File)

Accusations of violence against him had been made in a “vague manner,” Vicherat said, and the legal system would “allow the facts to be established.”

The criminal case was brought by prosecutors, neither Vicherat nor his former partner having filed any legal complaint.

‘People would step down’

The Paris prosecutors’ office confirmed that both had been served a summons on charges of reciprocal domestic violence “leading to an incapacity to work of more than eight days.”

The case will go to trial in the autumn, added a source close to the investigation who asked not to be named.

Vicherat already stepped aside temporarily in January after a preliminary investigation was launched and students blockaded the school, protesting against what they said was “impunity” for people committing “sexual and sexist violence.”

Sciences Po students welcomed his decision to quit, but regretted that the matter had dragged on for so long.

“I was surprised that he didn’t resign earlier,” said Lachlan, an Australian exchange student who declined to give his last name. “If something like this happens in my country, people would step down quite quickly.”

A French student, who declined to give her name, said Sciences Po should have acted sooner to remove the director. “They should apply the values that they advertise,” she said.

Sciences Po’s reputation had already been tarnished when Vicherat’s predecessor Frederic Mion was accused of covering up incest allegations against star political scientist Olivier Duhamel.

After Mion resigned in 2021, Vicherat took over, saying the fight against sexual violence was an “absolute priority.”

Sciences Po’s management told AFP on Wednesday that a new leadership team would be put together in the coming days.

Meanwhile, more controversy struck the Sciences Po campus after around 100 students occupying the main lecture hall as part of a pro-Palestinian demonstration on Tuesday were accused of barring entry to a Jewish student and insulting her.

The student — a member of the Union of Jewish Students in France (UEJF) that claims a national membership of 15,000 — was greeted with shouts of “Don’t let her in, she’s a Zionist,” the union said on X, formerly Twitter.

‘Unspeakable and perfectly intolerable’

The incident sparked condemnation at the highest level of government, with Macron telling Wednesday’s cabinet meeting that the remarks were “unspeakable and perfectly intolerable.”

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal said the government would be filing a legal complaint over the incident, warning of an “active and dangerous minority” on campus.

But students on the ground said the government should be more circumspect in its condemnation.

“It’s really sad that unverified information is taken directly to the French president,” said one student who declined to be named. “We don’t tolerate any form of antisemitism.”

Another student told AFP that the Jewish student had been denied access to the lecture hall because “she previously intimidated pro-Palestinian students” at the protest.

The student was the only representative of the Jewish student union to be barred from entering.

“Other UEJF members were able to take part in the debates,” said the student, who declined to give her name.

A protester puts up posters reading ‘Vicherat resignation,’ during a demonstration at the Sciences Po university in Paris to demand the resignation of its director, Mathias Vicherat, on December 7, 2023. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)

France is home to the world’s largest Jewish population after Israel and the United States, as well as to Europe’s largest Muslim community.

The country has seen a rise in pro-Palestinian protests since the Palestinian terror group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, sparking the ongoing war in Gaza.

Antisemitic acts in France have also increased, according to the Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF).

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