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Equality campaigners have accused Emmanuel Macron of betraying his promise to end violence against women and girls after the French government kept in place a new minister accused of rape by two women.

Feminist groups led by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics staged a street protest in Paris on Tuesday against what they called a “government of shame”, after Damien Abad, the Minister of Solidarity and persons with disabilities, remained in office despite allegations of rape.

Abad has denied the charges, including that of a woman who said in 2010 she passed out after accepting a glass of champagne from him and waking up in her underwear in a hotel room with him. Abad said his disability – arthrogryposis, a rare disease that affects the joints – meant he was incapable of sexual assault.

Government spokeswoman Olivia Grégoire said on Tuesday that tackling violence against women and girls would be a priority for Macron’s second term, as well as his first. She said Abad would stay in government and it was up to the justice system to establish the truth.

But campaigners have warned that the majority of rape and sexual assault cases in France have been dropped by prosecutors. One of the women who accused Abad had her case dropped by prosecutors, which she disputed. The other had not filed a formal complaint, but prosecutors are looking into the case.

The row over Abad, a right-wing politician who recently joined Macron’s centrist movement, has overshadowed the early days of the new government, led by Elisabeth Borne, France’s first female prime minister in more than 30 years.

Madeline da Silva, co-founder of the Observatory on Gender-Based and Sexual Violence in Politics, which briefed figures in Macron’s party on the allegations against Abad before his appointment, said he should not be in government.

“For the simple reason of setting an example and sending a message to women victims of sexual violence, Mr. Abad should not have been appointed minister,” she said. “Don’t tell us nobody knew… We’ve reported it in writing to high-profile political figures who, coincidentally, now say they haven’t seen the emails. There is an obligation in French labor law to protect people at work… By keeping Mr. Abad, the government is not fulfilling its responsibility to protect the people who work with him.

Da Silva said Borne saw her work overshadowed because her first cabinet meeting “featured someone sitting at the table being charged with sex crimes. Is that really the way to support women in politics?

Da Silva cited the case of Francois de Rugy who resigned as France’s environment minister during Macron’s first term, after allegations that he hosted lavish taxpayer-funded lobster dinners as a President of Parliament. She said De Rugy was not the subject of a police investigation when he quit. She said the message was “lobsters are more serious than rape”.

Borne said she was unaware of the charges against Abad until investigative site Mediapart published an article about them over the weekend. “Who can imagine for a single moment that the President, Emmanuel Macron, and the Prime Minister, Élisabeth Borne, did not know? said Xavier Bertrand, the head of the Hauts-de-France region.

Earlier this month there was outrage when Macron’s centrist party initially backed a parliamentary candidate in the Dordogne who had been found guilty of domestic abuse. Jérôme Peyrat was found guilty of violence against his former partner in September 2020.

But La République En Marche leader Stanislas Guerini told France Info radio that despite his conviction, Peyrat “is an honest man, I don’t think he is capable of violence against women”. Guerini later apologized and Peyrat withdrew as a candidate. Guerini was appointed to the government as a minister a few days later.

In 2020, Macron’s decision to appoint Gérald Darmanin as interior minister – despite accusations of rape, sexual harassment and abuse of power – drew strong criticism and sparked protests. Darmanin retained his cabinet post this month following Macron’s re-election. He has denied any wrongdoing, and prosecutors in January requested that the case be dropped.

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