PARIS—If you’ve taken a casual stroll in recent years through the romantic streets of Montmartre overlooking the City of Light, you’re bound to have spotted the graffiti.
Written in plain black script with a bit of a flourish at the end, it reads “L’amour court les rues” (roughly, “love roams the streets”) and has decorated everything from walls to crosswalks to discarded mattresses.
The slogan started appearing in Montmartre after the terrorist attacks of Nov. 13, 2015—a hopeful message in the aftermath of horror. In the years that followed, the words have added whimsical flourish to the neighborhood’s cobblestone alleys, vivid street art, and village-like vibe.
The doodle has also become something of a viral phenomenon—appearing not only in other Parisian neighborhoods, but on the social media feeds of tourists and residents alike. Indeed, a quick hashtag search on Instagram yields thousands of photos bearing the familiar black scrawl, one of which belongs to yours truly.
Like many others, I found the tag quirky, lighthearted and oh-so-French, and when I came across it on a cobalt-blue strip of wood above a ground-floor window, I took a quick snap and uploaded it to Instagram.
The tag’s creator, who became something of a local star thanks to his uplifting scribbles, also frequently visited the popular photo sharing site. Instagram, the French press alleges, was one of his preferred hunting grounds.
Identified in the French media as Wilfrid A., the artist would comb the site for images of his graffiti. If a young, attractive woman had posted a photo he would pounce. The fifty-something’s approach was always the same.
First, he would like or comment on the image, then he would begin sending private messages to the woman in question. The messages typically involved invitations for photo shoots at his photography studio or a drink at one of Montmartre’s dive bars.
He often targeted would-be models, some underage, offering photoshoots or promising to put them in touch with fashion industry insiders. Such overtures weren’t limited to social media. He also approached young women on the streets of Paris with a similar tactic: compliments on their appearance followed by invitations for photo sessions.
“I ran into this man about once a year,” one young woman told the French magazine NEON. “He would always stop me to tell me that he was a photographer and that he wanted to take pictures of me.”
The young woman refused, but it didn’t prevent Wilfrid A. from cornering her any time their paths crossed.
“What’s sad is that this started when I was in junior high school, so I was around 13 or 14 years old,” she remembered.
Dozens of other young women and girls did agree to a shoot, however. And the events that enfolded are as similar as they are chilling. In accounts published in French media, the women describe a dingy Montmartre apartment instead of a professional studio along with offers to drink alcohol or take drugs.
Once the session got underway, the artist would coax them to take nude or semi-nude photos, and then complain that the model was too “stiff” or “uptight” and that it would show in the photo. “You need to relax, to loosen up,” he would say. Then the abuse would start.
“I pulled away and he said ‘relax, I am not going to kiss you. It’s just to put you at ease.’”
The touching would then allegedly escalate, sometimes culminating in rape.
Another young woman recounted an unsettlingly similar story to The Daily Beast, telling me that she had taken precautions before meeting up with the photographer.
Requesting that she be identified only as Carole, she said that she was 23 when Wilfrid A. approached her in the street five years ago. He told her he liked her look—Carole was into street style at the time—gave her his card, and eventually invited her to Montmartre for an outdoor photo shoot.
“I looked up his work on his website and it seemed legit,” Carole said, adding that she also passed his address along to a friend on the day of the shoot just to be safe.
“I said, ‘if anything happens to me, I would be at this address,’” she recalled.
The shoot was supposed to take place outdoors, but the photographer told Carole he had to retrieve some equipment from his apartment first. Entering the apartment, Carole immediately felt uncomfortable. It was dirty and littered with cigarette butts. She had shown up dressed in standard street style, including boyfriend jeans, but Wilfrid A. told her she wasn’t dressed sexy enough—something she thought was odd given the androgynous nature of street fashion, but she brushed it off.
They descended to an interior courtyard to take some snaps against a white wall, and were about to head over to one of Montmartre’s colorful graffitied walls, when the artist said that he had forgotten something else in the apartment. It was back inside that things took a frightening turn.
“I was by the window and he said, ‘Wow, you look amazing! I need to take some pictures of you by the window.’”
As with other victims, Wilfrid A. began directing Carole how to pose, telling her she was too uptight, and needed to relax a bit more, needed to be a bit more sensual. He began touching her—her neck, her head—to show her how to pose. He began rubbing her neck. She objected and he apologized. A few seconds later, however, she found herself lying on the bed with the photographer on top of her rubbing against her and trying to kiss her.
“Pretend like I am your boyfriend and I am making love to you,” he instructed.
Carole recalled that it took her several seconds to even process what was happening.
“I told him that we were stopping the photography session, and he apologized again,” she said. “As I was leaving, he asked me if he could show me his genitals. I looked away and ran out the door.”
Shaken, Carole didn’t file a complaint with the police, explaining that she didn’t think what happened “was enough to result in a police investigation” since there hadn’t been penetration.
Following the publication of the NEON piece, more women came forward to share harrowing stories of their encounters with Wilfrid A. on social media. Aside from their nausea-inducing creepiness, I was struck by how alike the accounts were: the meetings at the apartment, the words, the gestures—they all shared the same calculated, predatory refrain. It was almost like something taken from the Harvey Weinstein playbook, that is, had the disgraced Hollywood mogul been skinny, broke, and living in Montmartre.
Carole said she was a bit shocked when she first read the NEON article. She had long suspected that she may not have been his only victim, but the number of women who came forward was startling all the same.
“When I read all the witness accounts, I said to myself, ‘He’s a real predator.’ From what I have read this has been going on for at least 10 years. Now is the moment to come forward.”
On Tuesday, a group of over 25 women filed a formal complaint, accusing the street artist of rape and sexual assault. Wilfrid A., the women allege, used his local fame as part of a well-honed routine to hunt, manipulate, and sexually abuse women over the course of a decade.
The accusations coincide, as it happens, with rape allegations against Emmanuel Macron’s newly appointed interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, who is currently under investigation for an alleged sexual assault that occurred 11 years ago. According to the complaint, the victim sought legal help from Darmanin during his tenure as a local politician in northern France. Instead, she allegedly was coerced into having sex with him. The case was thrown out in 2018, but reopened about a month ago.
Darmanin has maintained that the encounter was consensual, but his appointment as interior minister and head of the national police has sparked fury among women’s rights groups and feminists, some of whom held a protest in front of the city’s iconic Madeleine church on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, Macron and his government have stood behind his minister.
“He, like everyone else, has the right to the presumption of innocence,” Prime Minister Jean Castex told BFMTV.
Wilfrid A. also has this right, his lawyer has reminded French media. According to Joseph Cohen-Sabban, who is representing the artist, the case is not one of a rapist running amok, but of a sex-hungry seducer whose behavior, while at times clumsy, was not criminal.
“I have had a legal career spanning more than 40 years, and I don’t have excessive sympathy for standard rapists,” Cohen-Sabban told NEON. “I have the impression that here we have a series of missteps, and behavior that is less than elegant…He doesn’t deny having had numerous girls, conquests, relationships… He doesn’t live at all like a rapist, but like a guy who is permanently on the hunt [for new conquests].”
Such an attitude may seem shocking outside of France, but perfectly sums up a country still trying to grapple with the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, and even before that the scandalous behavior of Dominique Strauss Kahn, who was in line to win the French presidency in 2012 until multiple allegations of rape and assault effectively ended his career. How do the French incorporate issues of consent into a culture where aggressive flirting and what’s portrayed as the art of “la séduction” has long since been the norm.
“What this type of guy, who is not so young, can’t grasp is that heavy come-ons or the act of being a bit forceful with someone who hesitates at the last minute is considered rape today,” Cohen Sabban said.
In the meantime, Wilfrid A.’s Montmartre graffiti has morphed from a sweet testament to the power of love into a more sinister message in recent weeks. The word “l’amour” has been crossed out and “le violeur” has been scrawled above it: “Le violeur court les rues.”
”The rapist roams the streets.”