Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen / © Fraendag.lu
In 1969, Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen made history by becoming Luxembourg's first female minister. However, her tenure lasted only three years due to a calculated media attack by the political opposition that became known as the 'Buergfrid' Affair.
Stories of a nation's "firsts" tend to be inspiring tales of success. Often, they are about people coming out on top, even though the cards were stacked against them. The story of Luxembourg's first female minister could easily have been one of those stories – but it wasn't.
Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen was a member of the Christian Social People's Party (CSV) and served as Minister for Family Affairs, Youth, Social Solidarity, Health, Culture, and Religious Affairs between 1969 and 1972 – the first woman to be appointed minister in Luxembourg.
Her story is one of political intrigue, orchestrated and executed by men, and one that is to this day either not told at all or overshadowed by the attention-grabbing narrative that started it all.
In this article, we will explore the events leading to her resignation, along with lesser-discussed details of the affair. At the end, we will leave the final word to the person at the centre of it all: Madeleine Frieden herself.
I. The 'Buergfrid' Affair
The incident unfolded in the summer of 1969, when the newspaper Tageblatt published a series of sensationalist articles. According to the newspaper, a witness allegedly saw two naked men indulging in homosexual practices on a secluded meadow near a place called Buerfelt or Buergfrid at the Upper Sûre Lake. One of the individuals involved was reported to be a religion teacher, while the other was a 19-year-old man, making him a minor according to the law at that time.
The article also claimed that Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen, who had been appointed Minister for Family Affairs in February of that same year, was seen in the company of these individuals, with the article highlighting the fact that on one occasion she was seen "while wearing a white bikini."
In response, Frieden-Kinnen filed a libel lawsuit against Jacques Poos, the editor-in-chief of the Tageblatt, as the articles were published without an author's signature.
The legal proceedings related to the affair stretched on for years and consisted of two separate trials. The first focused on the "immoral behaviour" reported by the Tageblatt and concluded with the accused religion teacher receiving a three-year suspended prison sentence and a ten-year ban from holding office.
Regarding the libel lawsuit, the court ruled in first instance that the Tageblatt failed to substantiate Frieden-Kinnen's presence at Buergfrid, mainly due to a statement made by the 19-year-old. Poos fought back and filed a perjury complaint against the latter, which was successful and resulted in a three-month prison sentence in July 1972.
In September of that same year, Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen resigned from her ministerial position and pursued an appeal. However, the appeal process was eventually discontinued after several years, leaving no final verdict. Throughout her life, Frieden-Kinnen felt she had been treated unfairly, leading her to retreat from public life and dedicate her energy to working with humanitarian organisations.
II. 'She had the misfortune to be a woman'
Typically, this is where the story ends. However, in an episode of the Radio 100,7 show Humanities Talk released on 21 February 2016, Pascale Oberlé, who researched the scandal for her Bachelor's thesis, shed light on crucial background information that is still not widely known to this day.
First, Oberlé clarified the relationship between Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen and the men involved: The religion teacher was a man called François Raas, whom Oberlé describes as "a close family friend - he was almost like a son to Ms Frieden-Kinnen."
Initially, the CSV intended to respond to the Tageblatt article with their own piece to be published in the Luxemburger Wort. However, their efforts were thwarted because, before they could reach the minister, Frieden-Kinnen had already decided to pursue legal action.
This greatly upset the party, including then Prime Minister Pierre Werner. In fact, Oberlé revealed that Frieden-Kinnen did not choose to resign but was asked to step down by Werner, who "gave her an honourable way out by allowing her to say that it was she who had submitted her resignation."
When Oberlé spoke to Poos as part of her research, he claimed that he would not have pursued the affair further if there had only been a response article in the Wort.
Minister Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen with other members of government in 1969. / © SIP
Another detail that Oberlé uncovered through her research was that there was never a final verdict in the case because the lawyers of both parties reached an out-of-court settlement: If Frieden-Kinnen dropped the lawsuit, Poos would cease attacking her.
In the 100,7 interview, Oberlé highlighted the misogynistic nature of the scandal, pointing out that even though the affair did raise other political issues, such as the questionable financing of a youth centre, the debate quickly focused solely on whether or not the minister had been seen with two naked men while wearing a swimsuit. When asked whether a male politician would have been treated differently, Oberlé replied affirmatively, stating that Frieden-Kinnen "had the misfortune to be a woman."
This view has been shared by many others over the years, notably by journalist Yolande Kieffer, who wrote an article about the affair entitled Un monde misogyne et cruel ("A cruel and misogynistic world") that was published in the Lëtzebuerger Almanach vum Joerhonnert: 1900 – 1999.
Historian Marie-Paule Jungblut devoted an exhibition panel to Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen in her 2000 exhibition Incubi succubi: Witches and their hangmen, yesterday and today.
As for the homophobic aspect to the story, it is worth noting that the majority of press coverage at the time was not overtly homophobic, or at least not to the extent one might expect. In the late '60s and early '70s, homosexuality was no longer criminalised in Luxembourg, but it was still frowned upon.
Both Oberlé and contemporary journalists who covered the affair at the time highlighted the hypocrisy of both the Tageblatt and the Luxembourg Socialist Workers' Party (LSAP), who were generally in favour of a more tolerant and open society but were now framing homosexuality as "immoral" behaviour.
The 'Buergfrid' Affair is very complex, and it is easy to get lost in details.
Looking back at it today and considering everything that has been said, the following seems evident: Whatever happened between Frieden-Kinnen and the two men at Buergfrid is not really of any importance. They all knew each other very well and met for leisure activities in a secluded area that was not at all exposed to the public (Poos' witnesses had to use binoculars to see what was happening).
It was by all accounts something that was part of the minister's private life and even at the time, the Tageblatt was heavily criticised for not only violating Frieden-Kinnen's privacy but blowing the story way out of proportion for the sole purpose of damaging one of their political opponents.
As with any politician, there was a lot that Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen could be criticised for. Whether any of her policy decisions warranted her resignation, however, is highly questionable, particularly when considering how male politicians are treated.
It is the fact that she had to resign because of what was essentially a badly researched tabloid story that has led Oberlé and others to stress that the 'Buergfrid' Affair was not just another political scandal, but a sobering example of how female politicians are subjected to a level of scrutiny and criticism that the vast majority of their male counterparts just do not have to face.
III. Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen's final wish
Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen passed away in February 1999. One of her last wishes was to have a letter read aloud in the Chamber of Deputies following her death.
This letter is quite remarkable, and the following is an unabridged translation from the original French:
At this decisive moment when I am facing death, I solemnly declare - which I was not allowed to do in my lifetime - that I have been the victim of a judicial error. I forgive those through whom this misfortune has come and who may themselves have been misled by misunderstandings. I also express my gratitude to all those who, despite appearances, have maintained their trust and esteem for me. I assure them one last time that I deserved that trust and esteem.
In the hope that I will not be denied this ultimate wish, I depart in complete serenity towards this new life, where there is no injustice or false pretence, where everything is clear and true.
Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem*. Madeleine Frieden-Kinnen.
*"From shadows and phantasms into truth," an epitaph inscribed on the tomb of Cardinal John Henry Newman
On the day the letter was read in the Chamber of Deputies, there was only one representative of the government seated in the government bench: the Minister for Foreign Affairs … Jacques Poos.