PARIS (Reuters) - French Finance Minister Michel Sapin admitted on Wednesday to behaving inappropriately towards a female journalist, days after a sex scandal forced the resignation of the vice-president of the lower house of parliament.
Sapin said that he was sorry about what he did but insisted that that should not be "confused with the seriousness of harassment or sexual assault".
"During a trip to Davos in January 2015, amid about 20 people, I made a comment to a journalist about her clothing and put my hand on her back," Sapin said, in a statement that partly denied what French journalists wrote in a recent book about what happened at the World Economic Forum.
"There was no aggressive or sexual intent in my conduct but the mere fact that the person was shocked shows that those words and this gesture were inappropriate, and I was, and still am, sorry," he said in a statement sent to Reuters on Wednesday.
Sapin, one of Socialist President Francois Hollande's closest backers, said the journalist immediately asked to talk with him and that he apologized to her.
Hundreds of female French politicians on Tuesday denounced sexual harassment in the corridors of power and what they called a Mafia-style code of silence that lets it go unpunished, a day after lawmaker Denis Baupin quit his post as vice-president of France's National Assembly after being accused of harassment.
Baupin denies any wrongdoing.
Sapin said that "in the current circumstances" he felt he had to issue that statement.
Five years ago, when a sex scandal forced Frenchman Dominique Strauss-Kahn to resign from his post of IMF chief, the case unleashed a soul-searching debate within France about sexual abuse that goes undeclared or undetected in the upper echelons of power.
(Reporting by Ingrid Melander; editing by Ralph Boulton)