Europe

Sarah Abitbol: French ice skating head refuses to resign

File photo of Sarah Abitbol Image copyright AFP
Image caption Champion skater Sarah Abitbol said she was first raped by coach Gilles Beyer when she was 15

The head of France's ice skating federation has refused to resign amid a growing sexual assault scandal.

Ministers called on Didier Gailhaguet to step down after champion figure skater Sarah Abitbol accused her old coach Gilles Beyer of sexually assaulting her when she was 15.

But Mr Gailhaguet refused, saying he "absolutely did not protect" the coach.

Mr Beyer has admitted to "intimate" and "inappropriate" relations with her, and said he was "sincerely sorry".

In an autobiography released last week, Ms Abitbol alleges that he first raped her when she was a teenager.

Prosecutors in France have now opened an investigation.

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Media captionAre Europe's rape laws letting women down?

As part of their investigation, prosecutors said they would try to establish if anyone else had been abused.

Three other skaters have accused Mr Beyer and two more coaches - who are all from the official French Ice-Skating Federation (FFSG) - of abusing and raping them when they were minors.

Jean-Roland Racle denies the accusations and Michel Lotz has not commented.

France's top athletes signed a letter supporting Ms Abitbol on Wednesday, saying they were "disgusted... but not surprised".

"We can no longer be silent! It is time to act collectively and realize that breaking the silence also means serving sport," the letter reads. It was written by members of the Commission of High-Level Athletes (CAHN), part of France's Olympic Committee (CNOSF).

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Image caption Sarah Abitbol competed successfully alongside Stephane Bernadis throughout her career

Ms Abitbol and her skating partner, Stéphane Bernadis, are 10-time French national champions, and have won seven European medals. At the 2000 World Championships, the two became the first French pair to win a world medal in nearly 70 years.

What does Sarah Abitbol say?

In her book, Such a Long Silence, Ms Abitbol alleged that she was raped by Mr Beyer between 1990 and 1992.

"He started to do horrible things leading to sexual abuse," she told L'Obs magazine. "It was the first time a man touched me."

The former skater, who is now 44, rejected Mr Beyer's apology and said that she wanted accountability for "all those who covered up [the crimes] both in the club and the federation".

Mr Beyer, after coaching Ms Abitbol, went on to direct France's national skating teams. In the early 2000s he was the subject of two investigations into misconduct.

The second investigation, conducted by France's sports ministry, found repeated "serious acts" against young skaters. His contract as a technical adviser was terminated in 2001.

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Image caption Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu has called for the resignation of Didier Gailhaguet, head of France's skating federation

But despite his dismissal, Mr Beyer continued to work with hockey club Les Francais Volants and, until 2018, served several terms with the FFSG.

Why won't Didier Gailhaguet resign?

Mr Gailhaguet has been president of the FFSG almost continuously since 1998.

On Monday, French Sports Minister Roxana Maracineanu called for his resignation, saying a "general dysfunction" existed within the federation.

Mr Gailhaguet had a "moral and personal responsibility" to step down, she said.

While unable to sack him, Mrs Maracineanu said the federation would face sanctions if he remained.

French presidential spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiayer on Wednesday said the entire government "obviously" agreed that he should resign.

At a Wednesday press conference, Mr Gailhaguet said he was "an honest and hardworking president" and condemning him was "disgusting". He said he'd had no knowledge of what allegedly happened, adding that there was "no protection network".

"To resign, I would have to have committed a fault. I do not consider myself to have done so," he said.

"Mistakes, maybe, but not faults."

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