Paris: The family of Gerard Depardieu denounced Sunday an "unprecedented conspiracy" against the French film star, who was charged with rape in 2020 and is facing new scrutiny over sexist comments.
Mounting accusations of sexual harassment, as well as newly released footage of Depardieu making obscene comments, are forcing a fresh debate about sexism and sexual violence in French cinema.
Culture Minister Rima Abdul Malak said this week that the 74-year-old actor's behaviour shames France, noting that he might be stripped of the Legion of Honour, the country's top award, he received from president Jacques Chirac in 1996.
"Of course, we are often shocked by Gerard's comments, but our father/grandfather/uncle is being the target of an unprecedented conspiracy," several members of his family, including his daughter, actress Julie Depardieu, said in a letter published in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.
Deploring "this terrifying collective insanity", they said that "in private, with his children, he is an extremely modest, delicate and even prudish person!"
Depardieu was charged with rape in 2020 and has also faced 13 accusations of sexual harassment or assault.
On Friday, the culture minister said that the Grand Chancery of the Legion of Honour would initiate a "disciplinary procedure" to decide whether to strip Depardieu of the award.
Earlier this month, broadcaster France 2 showed the actor on a 2018 trip to North Korea repeatedly making explicit sexual comments in the presence of a female interpreter and sexualising a small girl riding a horse.
Depardieu - who has more than 200 roles to his name, including in the 1990 comedy "Green Card" and the Netflix series "Marseille" - has denied any wrongdoing.
"Never ever have I abused a woman," he wrote in Le Figaro newspaper in October.
His family denounced France 2's investigation as a "monstrous manipulation".
'Plays all roles'
They said Depardieu often liked to provoke but added that it was an act.
"He plays all the roles, even if it means shocking sensitive souls. Including us, of course," the letter said.
"He plays all the time," the family said.
"But this documentary has chosen to reduce him to the mere role of 'total a*******', the one we like least."
His family also said that some people were now taking offence at the actor's "excesses when only a short time ago that was part of the reason we loved him.
"He's being criticised today for doing what he was encouraged to do yesterday, which made a lot of people laugh on film sets, to loosen up the atmosphere."
The letter said it was necessary to stop "confusing words with deeds".
"Using Gerard's verbal provocations to back up other (as yet unsubstantiated) accusations is extremely dishonest," the family said.
Depardieu might be coarse or "Gallic" but "not violent", the family said. "We, who lived with him and saw him live, can testify to this."
"For him and all his family, the damage is indescribable."
On Saturday, the film star's lawyers told AFP that he was putting his Legion of Honour award at the disposal of the minister.
The lawyers, Beatrice Geissmann Achille and Christian Saint-Palais, questioned whether it was part of Abdul Malak's role to participate "so actively in the manhunt" and "media lynching" to which they believed their client was being subjected.
The culture minister has said French people will not stop watching films featuring Depardieu.
On Saturday, a Belgian municipality stripped Depardieu of the title of honorary citizen, and earlier this week the Canadian province of Quebec revoked its top honour over his "scandalous" comments against women.
In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron withdrew the Legion of Honour from Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein after a series of accusations of sexual harassment and rape.