French remain unsure about #MeToo movement

FranceMeTooPARIS, France – The #MeToo movement has sparked a social revolution among Americans fed up with sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere.

In France, not so much.

“I don’t want to imply that the French are in favor of harassment, but rather that there is a part of our culture where seducing is important and well regarded,” says Raphaël Hun, 38, an artisanal food entrepreneur based in southern France. “Look for instance at the difference in the reactions of the American and French people when it appeared that their respective presidents, Clinton and Mitterrand, had an affair.”

Hun referred to the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s as well as revelations about the late French President Francois Mitterrand, who bore two children from extramarital affairs. Whereas lawmakers impeached President Bill Clinton for lying about his relationship with the former White House intern, French citizens shrugged off news about Mitterrand’s escapades.

His comments reflected a view that’s common in France. While #MeToo has resonated here, particularly among young people, many feel the movement is veering too far toward American puritanism that could threaten the French way of life, its sexual freedom and joie de vivre.

French culture has long cherished the role of seduction, pleasure and good living. Sex is not considered as taboo in France as it is in the US. Come-ons – whether welcome or not – are considered part of life.

French film star Catherine Deneuve and other high-profile French women stood up for that point of view last month in an open letter published in the French daily newspaper Le Monde. In the letter, Daneuve and her co-authors argued that the #MeToo movement – and its French counterpart #BalanceTonPorc or “Out Your Pig” in French – had turned into a witch-hunt threatening sexual and artistic freedom.

“What we are once again witnessing here is puritanism in the name of a so-called greater good, claiming to promote the liberation and protection of women, only to enslave them to a status of eternal victim and reduce them to defenseless preys of male chauvinist demons,” Deneuve and her co-authors wrote.

To be sure, sexual harassment exists in France. And people are outspokenly against it.

French social media exploded with thousands of stories of predatory behavior recently after journalist Sandra Muller used #BalanceTonPorc to denounce a television executive’s inappropriate advances. A group of supporters later used the hashtag to create a website where women could come forward anonymously about sexual harassment.

But psycho-sociologist and author Christine Marsan noted that many in France are growing uneasy with public denunciations that feel like an unwelcome reminder of the atmosphere of fear and suspicion in the dark days of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime that ruled France during World War II.

“#BalanceTonPorc feels excessive because it’s an invitation to denounce someone, to name and shame. It feels as if it legitimizes violence and exacerbates a contraposition between men and women, which isn’t appropriate,” she said. “On the other hand, #MeToo is more balanced and positive because it invites women to speak out and break the taboo, to show that sexual harassment is unacceptable.”

That said, the backlash has also arguably gone too far.

Last month, Deneuve felt compelled to distance herself from one of the signatories of their open letter, Brigitte Lahaie, a former pornographic actress turned radio host, who claimed on national television that rape victims enjoyed the experience.

In a letter to newspaper Liberation, Deneuve reiterated her position but made clear that she didn’t sanction violence. “I think the solution lies in educating both our sons and daughters,” Deneuve wrote. “But also, potentially, in setting up procedures in the workplace so that prosecution is immediately set in motion in cases of harassment. I believe in justice.”

But unfortunately, like in the US, despite the existence of laws against sexual harassment, many French victims hesitate to come forward because they fear their complaints won’t be taken seriously.

According to a study by French pollster IFOP, only 65 out of 1,048 cases of sexual harassment in France led to a conviction in 2014.

“Women who complain to the police often face questions about their motives, their clothes or whether it’s really a case of sexual harassment,” said attorney Arnaud Touati, a lawyer with the Alto Avocats law firm in Paris. “I think it’s on this front that the movement can have a positive impact and bring change.”

Whether they think #BalanceTonPorc is too harsh or #MeToo is puritanical, many French women agreed, saying they refuse to remain silent about harassment.
“As a woman, I have had to face shocking behavior like a man rubbing his sex against me in the metro and, during a stint working in television, inappropriate behavior by a prominent personality,” said Parisian fashion designer Eve de Rothiacob, 42.

Photo: Screenshot from France 24 official YouTube channel. The headline is from French newspaper Le Figaro with the headline "Wave of outrage after a debate against the Weinstein affair," and French actress Catherine Deneuve.
Credit: Courtesy of France 24 official YouTube channel

Photo/story publish date: 02/08/2018

A version of this story was published in USA Today.
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