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France defends women's rights as conductor to return onstage

PARIS (AP) — The French government is defending its feminist credentials after the announcement that a renowned conductor accused of sexual assault is taking the stage in Paris. Marlene Schiappa, the secretary of state for women's rights, acknowledged Thursday that sexism is "very deeply anchored in our society" and said she wages a daily fight against it. She lamented an "enormous backlash" in France to the #MeToo movement against sexual misconduct that started in Hollywood and spread around the world.

But Schiappa insisted that her government is waging "feminist diplomacy" abroad and battling at home via new laws against street harassment and cyberbullying. She wouldn't comment directly on the return of conductor Charles Dutoit, set to lead the National Orchestra of France on Sunday. It's his highest-profile performance since major world orchestras severed ties with him after several women told The Associated Press in 2017 that Dutoit had sexually assaulted them.

Dutoit denies wrongdoing, and hasn't responded to requests for comment on his Sunday appearance. Celine Piques of French activist group Osez le feminisme expressed shock at Dutoit's return. "We're receiving him as if nothing happened," she said. "It's a catastrophic signal to women who are victims ... and to all women who don't have the courage to speak out, who are afraid to push the door of a police station to report what has happened to them."

The AP reported in 2017 that three opera singers and a classical musician accused Dutoit of sexually assaulting them between 1985 and 2010, on the sidelines of rehearsals and performances with orchestras in five cities. In 2018, the AP reported six new accusations of sexual assault from female musicians in the United States, France and Canada, including a musician who said the maestro raped her in 1988.

Several orchestras severed ties with Dutoit as a result. Dutoit's defenders stress that he has never been convicted. None of the accusers filed formal complaints at the time of their alleged assaults because, they said, they were young and feared their careers could be harmed by speaking out.

Piques said the numbers of complaints of sexual violence and harassment in France went up 30 percent in 2018 as a result of the #MeToo effect. However her group's monitoring found the number of women who said they had been raped in 2018 remained unchanged compared to 2017.

While Schiappa insisted her government is working to help victims, she said French society has a long way to go. "All women public figures, who as soon as they express themselves, they are immediately threatened ... women are told to go back home, or they are over-sexualized to show that they have no place in public debate," she said.

The National Orchestra of France said Dutoit was chosen to conduct Berlioz' "The Damnation of Faust" at the Paris Philharmonic on Sunday because he was the only conductor with the necessary skills available at short notice. Dutoit is a Berlioz specialist.

The orchestra wouldn't comment on the assault allegations, but said the decision to hire him was discussed with the musicians performing Sunday.

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