• French actress Catherine Deneuve has apologised to victims of sexual abuse, but stands by her comments the #MeToo campaign has become a "witch-hunt". (EPA/IAN LANGSDON)
When Catherine Deneuve led a group of French women complaining the #metoo movement had become a "witch-hunt" it seemed the treasured Gallic culture of flirting, amid a deep suspicion of 'Anglo puritanism' would prevail. But all that is changing with a new guard of French feminists who argue it's time to retire the outmoded 'gallant' male seducer to the dustbin of history.
By
Nicole Trian

23 Jan 2018 - 11:50 AM  UPDATED 24 Jan 2018 - 9:36 AM

If there was ever a doubt that feminism could be as partisan and ideologically fractured as any other socio-political movement it was surely snuffed out with the actions last week of iconic actress Catherine Deneuve and 99 other prominent Frenchwomen.

The ‘100’ drew worldwide scorn after signing a letter published in Le Monde newspaper saying the #MeToo campaign, which in France took the slogan #BalanceTonPorc (squeal on your pig) had become a “witch-hunt” inciting “hatred against men and sex” and threatened sexual freedom. They also defended men’s right to “pester” a woman.

Critics swiftly pounced with young French feminists led by Caroline de Haas calling the women “apologists for rape”. Deneuve later apologised to victims of ‘odious’ sexual abuse.

“It’s two steps forward, one step back” said Caroline de Haas of the struggle for sexual equality, who along with 30 other French activists published a rebuttal on the news site franceinfo.

“It’s a bit like the awkward work colleague or annoying uncle who doesn’t understand what’s happening.”

But Deneuve has also had her supporters. Fellow film legend Brigitte Bardot is the latest high profile woman to take a swipe at the #MeToo campaign claiming many actresses were being “hypocritical” and “ridiculous”. 

 Earlier from across the Atlantic, author Lionel Shriver publicly backed Deneuve saying that the distinction between “serious sexual assault and even rape and putting a hand on a knee” risked being lost. She added “If you get in a dissenting opinion, you're going to get slaughtered."

 Others weighing in on the #MeToo campaign like Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, warned against a rise in “vigilante justice” defending her position, after she received an onslaught of online abuse, in an op-ed for the Globe and Mail.

 

And herein lies the ideological chasm between Anglo feminism and its French version. At its heart is a distaste and suspicion of Anglo puritanism.

Amid the outrage and verbal missives, many Anglo commentators dismissed or minimised the French cultural context but in doing so have failed to understand how the uniquely Gallic brand of feminism evolved -- and how it still keeps French women and men tethered to behavioural codes.

French feminist Sylviane Agacinski in her 1998 book ‘Sexual Politics’ wrote of French women: “We want to keep the freedom to be seduced and to seduce.”

And herein lies the ideological chasm between Anglo feminism and its French version. At its heart is a distaste and suspicion of Anglo puritanism.

Among the ‘100’ are academics, writers, prominent personalities including a porn star turned TV host, and Catherine Millet whose 2002 memoir The sexual life of Catherine M recounted explicit descriptions of sexual encounters and orgies. None of these women are representative of the majority who are less affluent, less privileged. Why should anyone outside or inside France be shocked that for these women feminism means freedom, rights and choices – the choice of having a man come on to a woman and her right to either pursue it or not.

For Deneuve, et al. to defend women’s sexual agency and yet suggest that women should cope with a little groping on the metro without feeling traumatised, is just jaw-droppingly bizarre and contemptuous.

“I can hear a sexual proposition and I can say ‘no’,” said French writer Abousse Shalmani one of the ‘100’ women in a radio interview, implying other women could do the same.

The metro is but one battleground for equality, others are fighting it out on the street and in the workplace.

What they’re all struggling against are challengers who come in different guises -- the ‘gallant’, the ‘importuner’, ‘la draguer’ -- seducers by any other name, who are so intrinsic to the national male character that whatever transgression they’re accused of is often dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders and pursed lips that sound an insouciant ‘pfft’!

This indifference worked for Dominique Strauss-Khan, a former presidential hopeful accused of assaulting a maid in a New York hotel in 2011, who was known in some Parisian circles for his abuse and harassment of women.

"We have a sexist environment in France and the only way it will stop is when men feel ashamed about what they do."

Many hoped the scandal would lead to real change but a glimpse at France’s recent past illustrates how the country has struggled with equal rights – it was only in 2012 that France introduced a historic gender equality bill.

In 2016, a group of women including IMF boss Christine Lagarde were pushed to the brink when they added their names to “A Statement against sexism”. Around the same time, 40 female journalists publicly blew the lid on “lewd paternalism” in official circles.

Even parliament has reverberated with sexist machismo when during her speech a female minister was taunted by male MPs wolf-whistling in response to her wearing a floral summer dress.

“We have a sexist environment in France and the only way it will stop is when men feel ashamed about what they do,” said Rebecca Amsellem founder of feminist group Les Glorieuses.

Leading the charge to tackle sexism and harassment is France’s new minister for women Marlène Schiappa. She wants to criminalise sexual harassment including ‘catcalling’ on the streets with men found guilty potentially facing hefty fines.

Deneuve’s ‘importuner’ a man who may “ have tried to steal a kiss, to have spoken of ‘intimate’ things during a professional dinner,” or touched a knee sounds more like a pesky creep. But these same actions can just as easily be pernicious– repeated, unwanted attempts to steal a kiss, conversations that keep circling back to inappropriate sexual innuendo, attempts at coercion – and they have nothing to do with seduction.

As feminists, let’s be smart enough to resist the impulse to engage in a polarising ‘take down’ that quashes dissent. Instead let’s recognise, discern and call out legitimate misogynists intent on disempowering, intimidating and abusing women even when they hide behind exotic sounding labels like Deneuve’s ‘importuner’.  

Nicole Trian is an Australian journalist and editor based in Paris.

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