Sanofi in #MeToo fight with ex-executive who was dismissed for sexual harassment

Sanofi has been sued for $1.5 million by its former director of press relations, who says his 2013 dismissal over sexual harassment claims was unjustified. (Sanofi)

Sanofi finds itself in the middle of a very public legal battle with a former executive dismissed over sexual harassment claims even as the #MeToo movement builds momentum in the country.

The Paris-based drugmaker is fighting claims from its former director of press relations, Jean-Marc Podvin, who claims he was unfairly dismissed after being accused of sexting to one employee and putting the hand of another on his exposed penis, Bloomberg reports.

Podvin, who denies the allegations, is seeking €1.2 million ($1.5 million) from his former employer after being let go in 2013 for gross misconduct. Podvin's lawyer, whose claims have twice been denied by French courts, said he is appealing a previously unreported October appeals court ruling.

Sanofi in an emailed statement today said: "Sanofi does not comment on a court decision. However, as part of its HR policy and its Code of Ethics, Sanofi is particularly attentive to the respect and protection of all its employees and has always taken all the necessary provisions to prevent, stop and punish acts of sexual harassment.”

The case has gotten public attention even as the #MeToo movement, known as #BalanceTonPorc (Denounce Your Pig) in France, has exploded worldwide. Bloomberg, citing the French interior minister, reports that the number of official complaints alleging sexual assault, excluding rape, were up 31.5% in the last quarter of 2017.

That came after an October expose by the New York Times detailing decades of sexual harassment and abuse claims by actresses against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein turned #MeToo into a worldwide movement. It has spurred millions of posts by women who talked about their own cases and led to allegations, terminations, and sometimes apologies, from dozens of high profile men.

Sanofi is among drugmakers that pulled their advertising from Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" last year after it was learned the company had settled multiple sexual harassment claims against its controversial, but revenue-generating, host Bill O'Reilly.

RELATED: GSK, Sanofi, Bayer and Lilly join parade of advertisers marching off Fox News host O’Reilly’s TV show

France, where it is estimated a third of women have been sexually harassed at work, began looking more closely at its culture seven years ago when a maid at a Washington, D.C., hotel accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn, then head of the International Monetary Fund and a French presidential candidate, of sexually assaulting her. The case was settled out of court.

In the Sanofi case, Podvin is accused of sending texts to an assistant in which he called her “sexy” and commented on her very pretty “top and bottom,” according to court documents cited by Bloomberg. Another said that “sexting” was hot. She complained to the personnel department, and he was let go two weeks later.  

After his dismissal, Bloomberg reported that other women at Sanofi came forward, including a press officer that claimed Podvin gave her a ride home but stopped before getting to her apartment “and put my hand on his penis, which was already outside his trousers.” She said she tried to defuse the situation with humor because she was afraid and never reported the incident to the police or at work.

Podvin's lawyer told Bloomberg it is her word against his that the incident happened, and as far as the claims of sexting, his client has a different interpretation of the events.