Elisabeth Roudinesco and the Dolto Case: An Interview

“Dolto, Foucault, Matzneff: no distinction is made anymore between paedophiles and thinkers

Interview by Eric Favereau

In this interview Roudinesco refers to the “Matzneff case”, little-known among non-French readers. Gabriel Matzneff (born in 1936 into a family of Russian stock) is a French writer and journalist, author of several novels, poems, short stories, essays and of a long autobiographical Journal later entitled “Carnets Noirs”. Venerated by critics and Parisian culture, he has won various prestigious literature prizes and has contributed to some of the most important French newspapers. In his books, particularly in his autobiographical ones, he speaks openly of his “pederasty”, his love experiences with adolescents of both sexes. In the last fifteen years or so he has been in economic difficulties and now receives a small allocation from the Centre national du livre (similar to the Royal Literary Fund in the UK). As early as 1974, in the book ‘Les moins de seize ans’ (Under 16 Years Old) he wrote: “What captivates me is not so much a particular sex, but rather extreme youth, from the tenth to the sixteenth year, which appears to me – far beyond what is usually meant by this formula – as an authentic third sex. Sixteen is not, however, a fatal age for women, who are still desirable after it […] Call me bisexual if you wish or, as the Ancients used to say, ambidextrous, I see no inconvenience in it […] To my eyes extreme youth in itself represents a particular, unique, sex.” And indeed, many of his essays outline an authentic militancy in favour of pederasty.

The “Matzneff case” began in December 2019 with the publication of an autobiographical book entitled Le consentement (Consent) by the head of the Julliard publishing house Vanessa Springora, who had a relationship, amorous and sexual, with Matzneff when she was 14 and he was 50. A relationship Matzneff himself had mentioned in some of his past books changing the names of the characters involved. The book quickly became a best-seller and triggered a long series of controversies. The Parisian intellectual elite was accused of protecting a declared paedophile for years and in January 2020 Paris magistrates opened an inquiry against Gabriel Matzneff for “rape against minors under the age of 15”. Immediately afterwards, L’Ange bleu, an association for the prevention of paedophilia,  announced it would take him to court for “exalting sexual attacks and rape against minors and for the glorification of paedophilia”. In the same month four publishers, Gallimard, La Table ronde, Léo Scheer and Stock, announced they would stop the sale of some of his books.


Our journal has published these papers by Françoise Dolto:


–         “The Mirror’s Child” by F. Dolto and J.-D. Nasio,



–         “On Feminine Sexuality”



–         “Feminine Eroticism.

Its structuration in childhood, and its manifestations in the adult woman



Editors’ note

With the Matzneff case, certain observations by Françoise Dolto on paedophilia and spousal violence have re-emerged. Observations that, Roudinesco thinks, taken out of context, however open to criticism, fuel a ‘dark legend’ on psychoanalysts and psychoanalysis in general. She also targets the responsibilities of representatives of the discipline, who isolate themselves in their fortress and claim to be victims of a conspiracy.

In 1979 the feminist journal Choisir la Cause des Femmes published, in an issue dedicated to “children in pieces”, a long interview with the psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto. In the occasion of the Vanessa Springora-Gabriel Matzneff case, on January 8 the Canard Enchaîné republished large extracts from that article. In it, the child psychoanalyst makes some disconcerting, not to say revolting, arguments. When asked about mistreated women, she replies: “It’s the husband who needs help, not the battered woman”. On incest she comes out with: “in father-daughter incest, the daughter adores her father and is delighted to be able to mock her mother!” Astonishing words at the time and even more so today. The Matzneff case also triggered accusations against some distinguished intellectuals, including Françoise Dolto herself, accused of leniency towards paedophilia at the time, which in the case of the famous psychoanalyst is inexact. The historian of psychoanalysis Elisabeth Roudinesco returns to this violent controversy and tries to understand why the world of psychoanalysis is undergoing such a crisis today.


What’s your reaction to the controversy over certain texts by Françoise Dolto published last January by Le Canard Enchaîné?

Françoise Dolto often said some senseless things, especially when she started becoming famous and would say whatever came into her head to anyone who asked her a question. In all quotes from her, which are quite well-known and have been available on the Internet for decades, the refrain is always the same: she mistakes children for adults, because she rightly recognizes their statute as subjects, she confuses unconscious and conscious and she piles up specific cases from her clinical activity as if she were addressing a circle of initiates: battered women ‘unconsciously’ wish to be battered, children ‘unconsciously’ like seducing adults, especially their fathers, and so on.


It was an authentic slip-up, wasn’t it?

It was something far more serious than a slip-up, because the main blunder about such statements was to let one believe in the absolute power of every form of interpretation, even a raving by the psychoanalyst. In fact there is no proof that all battered women ‘unconsciously’ wish to be battered and that all children ‘unconsciously’ love to sexually seduce adults. And even if during a cure such an observation could be made, it would only be a particular case that should by no means be turned into a general theory and a suffering subject should by no means be allowed to delight in such a situation. Especially in the case of children, who are never consenting, whatever seduction they may exert on an adult.

The problem is that these quotes consist of no more than about fifty pages out of a corpus of works of over thirty volumes. And the attacks are recurring. This is what makes it possible for Dolto’s contribution to childhood to be overshadowed. Reductionism is always the ideology of fools, whether they are the disciples of a rosy legend (Dolto is always right, she is a genius) or fanatics of a dark legend (she is a paedophile and a Vichy supporter).


But can one be satisfied with such arguments?

Obviously not. That’s why the publication of Dolto’s posthumous works should be criticised.


You mean censoring her?

Catherine Dolto, who holds the moral rights to her mother’s works, wrote that she didn’t want her 1979 declarations to be published, because you could have her say anything: and that’s true. But why have those quotes been allowed to circulate for the last thirty-two years? Why hasn’t the entire corpus of Dolto’s works been published chronologically and with footnotes? If that had been done, the quotes would have been inserted in their context, even open to severe criticism. Since 1988 several books containing foolish passages have been published randomly and sold as best-sellers. Devotees of Dolto live in the evangelical cult of their ‘saintly grandma’, and faced with severe adversities they react with indignation and the rejection of all rationality.


These words by Dolto cropped up in a particular context in which psychoanalysis is severely under attack.

Yes, it’s a disaster. At a time when associations defending morality strive to review the texts of the past, no difference is made any longer between paedophiles and thinkers who signed petitions to decriminalize homosexuality or against unfair laws on the corruption of minors. In other words, Dolto, Foucault, Matzneff, Deleuze and Cohn-Bendit are all lumped together: they’re all child rapists.


But Lacan too sometimes made senseless statements.

His case is different. Françoise Dolto didn’t have the intellectual dimension of Lacan. They formed a fascinating pair, one with his conceptual power, the other with her brilliant clinical practice with children. To end this binarity – hagiography on the one hand and demonology on the other – an actual biography would be needed of her life and work – like the one I wrote on Lacan in 1993 – establishing her authentic role as the founder of child psychoanalysis in France, and in France alone, and whose oral teachings were remarkable: luckily traces of it have remained in the form of transcriptions, footage and radio recordings. But she doesn’t of course have the stature of Melanie Klein or Donald Woods Winnicott, who invented new concepts and whose works are translated into several languages and read all over the world. Dolto is instead little known outside France, especially in the English-speaking world.

Dolto’s life is quite fascinating: through psychoanalysis she detached herself from her background in the Action Française. We should compare her itinerary to that of Simone de Beauvoir and several other women of her generation who were able, through work and study, to free themselves from their environment.


Of course, but it’s also a hard blow for psychoanalysis. The media didn’t make up Dolto’s words…

Of course it didn’t, but it manipulated them maliciously. With regard to the crisis of psychoanalysis, the teaching of which is in agony in the universities and which has disappeared from the study of psychiatry, it is mainly due to psychoanalysts themselves, those of the generation born between 1945 and 1965. They were unable to contrast the radical anti-Freudianism that exploded in the 1990s. They isolated themselves in a fortress without changing their programmes or their binary conception of history, presenting themselves as victims of a conspiracy by their enemies, who more often than not were fools. Finally, they proved themselves to be intolerably homophobic when faced with the changes in family legislation. In 1999, in reaction to the introduction of civil unions in France, some even said that homosexual marriage was impossible because contrary to the Oedipus complex.


But why is this true of French psychoanalysts in particular?

It is indeed a specifically French phenomenon, even if this decline exists elsewhere too. In other countries psychoanalysts have a much easier time than in France; they’ve adapted to reality, they’ve made changes to their training, they haven’t shown any contempt for the psychotherapies and they’ve proved to be perfectly open to the historians of their field. French psychoanalysts considered themselves superior to others because they could boast of having had Lacan, the last great thinker of Freudianism whose work shines all over the world, but no longer belongs to them, just like Freud’s doesn’t. From this point of view idolisers of Lacan and anti-Lacanian fanatics are very similar: Lacan is their fetish object.


You’re very harsh!

No, I’m simply clear-headed. French psychoanalysts have turned this wonderful discipline into a sort of machine good for interpreting anything: politics, history, events, subjectivity, and so on. And the media love to summon them to develop the psychological profile of one famous personality or the other (Macron, Sarkozy or Strauss-Kahn), in what I called bazaar psychology.


Incidentally, analysts have also opposed any assessment of their practices…

If one wants to assess treatments according to the principles of Inserm (the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research), that’s not a good idea. Because we’re in the field of subjectivity and a diagnosis-treatment-recovery model doesn’t adapt to it. Behaviourists made the mistake of believing it was possible, and I wish them the best of luck, but they’re heading straight for a brick wall if they think they are scientists exactly like neurologists or biologists.


What should have been done instead?

Repositioning psychoanalysis in the field of the human sciences, and certainly not in that of the so-called ‘scientific’ psychology. We should create, like everywhere else in the world, private institutes to train psychoanalysts in three years after a solid course of university studies and we should put an end to these interminable treatments, often silent and full of half-baked interpretations. We should learn from the mistakes of the past and understand the remarkable explosion of the psychotherapies and the demand of patients, who today no longer turn to psychoanalysis or behaviourism, but to coaching, meditation and other therapies that have nothing of the scientific: be happy in a healthy body (“happycracy”), and so on.


What is then the future of a psychoanalysis?

What will be dominant is a psychoanalytic culture that crosses art, literature, philosophy. Freud has become an essential thinker everywhere in the world. Debates between historians, philosophers and persons of literature are extremely prosperous. French clinicians should cease to be at once arrogant and depressed.


You forget the bulldozer represented by the neurosciences, which consider themselves the alpha and omega of reason…

It’s far too easy to attack the neurosciences. However, the conviction that everything is linked to the brain is folly. The followers of the neurosciences are not far from being invaded by the same interpretative raving as psychoanalysts. There must be a triple approach to treating the illnesses of the soul: chemistry (psychotropic drugs), the social environment, the psyche (the cure). A totalitarian vision means heading towards certain failure.


Last published work: Dictionnaire amoureux de la psychanalyse, éd. Plon /Seuil, Paris 2017.

Publication Date:

April 24, 2020

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis