The 100 signatories of an open letter published in Le Monde on 8 January 2018 launched a peculiarly Gallic attack on the #metoo movement, and revived the longstanding antagonism between French and Anglo-Saxon feminisms.
In the wake of the Weinstein Affair (and its widespread and continuing repercussions), female French writers, artists, actresses, journalists, and academics took to task the supporters of what they argue is a current climate of ‘moralist backlash’ and feminist ‘censorship’. At the heart of the letter lies a rejection of a type of feminism which is viewed as ‘puritanical’, even stalinist, and is marked by its perceived ‘hatred of men’. The signatories deplored the way in which public accusations against well-known men have been amplified through social media, thereby creating a form of summary justice, in which the accused, like ‘pigs sent to the abattoir’ see their careers and reputations destroyed with no recourse to response or to self-defence.
For many onlookers, the key problematic was amply epitomised by the choice to use the verb ‘importuner’, to headline the letter. The verb has a number of connotations and its meaning is dependent on context; it can be translated as: to trouble, to bother, to disturb, to pester, to accost, to molest… In stating, ‘we defend the freedom to pester [trouble/bother/accost, etc.] which is indispensible to sexual freedom’, the letter argues for the sexual freedom of men to pester or to accost women, to hit on them, to try to pick them up, to chat them up, to touch them. In making this case for the maintenance of ‘sexual freedoms’, the letter distinguishes between what it terms acts of sexual aggression, and other forms of sexual advance deemed less ‘serious’. The signatories came to the defence of the male ‘victims’ whose only ‘wrong’ was to have ‘touched a knee, attempted to steal a kiss, spoken of intimate matters during a professional dinner, or sent messages with sexual connotations to a woman for whom the attraction was not reciprocated.’ Rape is a crime, the letter argued, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cackhandedly, is not.
Unsurprisingly, the publication of this letter made headlines across the globe, and provoked blistering attacks across social media. Its signatories were variously accused of having internalised misogyny, of being stuck in the 1960s and 1970s, of being rape apologists. The publication Femmes plurielles responded by mirroring and subverting the original letter’s headline: We defend the liberty to denounce, which is indispensible to our rights.’
In a letter published a week later in Libération, one celebrity who had put her name to the letter, actress Catherine Deneuve, issued an apology to victims of sexual attacks: ‘I’m a free woman and I will remain one,’ Deneuve stated; ‘I fraternally salute all women victims of odious acts who may have felt aggrieved by the letter in Le Monde. It is to them, and them alone, that I apologize.’
While Deneuve distanced herself from some of her co-signatories, and in spite of her apology to rape victims, Deneuve remained largely unrepentant in her stance. She expressed her reserves concerning the French equivalent of the #metoo campaign (#balance ton porc – squeal on your pig), and reiterated that while it is legitimate and necessary to speak out against the abuse of power by some men, argued again that the current wave of constant denunciations showed that whistleblowing had spiralled out of control.
The original letter, and Deneuve’s subsequent interventions articulate once more the longstanding tension between French and Anglo-Saxon versions of feminism. Simone de Beauvoir, mother of French feminism, remained curiously uncomprehending of her transatlantic sisters. Writing in 1947, de Beauvoir pointed to the cultural and sexual divide between the two, observing that ‘American women have only contempt for French women always too happy to please their men and too accepting of their whims.’ Key contemporary feminist thinker, Elisabeth Badinter, has more recently accused French women of aligning themselves with a ‘victimising’ culture of American feminism. This year’s defence of ‘clumsy flirting’ underscores that difference between French and Anglo-Saxon acceptance of certain sexual mores, and alerts us to the fact that feminism should not be viewed as a homogeneous school of thought.