Me Too: The French backlash

A few weeks ago about 100 women from the highest spheres of French society  – authors, artists, performers and academics – wrote an open letter to Le Monde deploring the wave of “denunciations” triggered by France’s version of the #MeToo movement #BalanceTonPorc (call out your pig). The letter begins, “Rape is a crime, but…” and goes on to affirm that a new (British and American-style) puritanism has been unleashed on France by the sexual harassment scandals. Men must be “free to importune” women, they wrote, and should not be punished for “stealing a kiss.” Among the signatories are actress Catherine Deneuve, author Catherine Millet and radio host Brigitte Lahaie. A week later Brigitte Bardot told Paris Match she too agreed with the letter. Bardot condemned her fellow actresses as ‘teases’ (allumeuses) who provoke male producers in order to get parts, asserting that, “in the vast majority of cases [the actresses] are hypocritical, ridiculous, and uninteresting.” Apart from Bardot’s views on the matter – which from this long-standing supporter of the Front National are unsurprisingly reactionary – it is the tone that raises questions: why such scorn for the victim?

This backlash against a movement, widely perceived in France as long overdue, has shocked and baffled social commentators in Britain and America. Old age has been blamed for the signatories’ perceived collusion with the patriarchy but I would argue that age is not the thing. There are plenty of French women of this generation speaking out against the climate of impunity that has long enabled men in positions of power, men like former French presidential candidate, Dominique Strauss Kahn, to get away with routine sexual harassment, even assault. For me the clue both to Bardot’s hostility and to the motivations of the authors of the Le Monde letter, can be found, not in the incompatible values of their generation, but in France’s enduringly hierarchical society and, in particular, these women’s status within it.  

Another signatory, Brigitte Lahaie, displayed an equally shocking insensitivity when invited on to French television (BFMTV) with feminist militant, Caroline de Haas. Lahaie, a radio talk-show host on matters of sex and love, and a former porn actress, began by denouncing this new chapter in feminism as a campaign of “hatred for men and sexuality.” Echoing the letter’s positioning of men as victims of their libido, and those who rub up against women in the Metro as “sexually impoverished,” Lahaie announced – with the authority of an expert – that women are more “sexually powerful” than men. For Lahaie then, when it comes to sex someone has to be in power. The idea of a sexual partnership in which the power is shared is not only implausible; it holds no interest for her. Why? Because her own sexual power is what has won her status in French society: Lahaie’s sex, like Bardot’s, has been her fortune.

In the same interview, Lahaie went on to point out that, “some women orgasm during rape, you know.” Again, this staggering lack of empathy for the victims of rape stems, not from her age but from her sense of entitlement, albeit unconscious: Lahaie, like Bardot and indeed Deneuve, has risen above the lowly status of ordinary womanhood to become a national treasure. She cannot, and will not, empathise with the victim.

“All men are born free and equal in rights,” begins the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Equality is modern France’s founding myth. And yet few societies are more fixated with status than France. Why this might be can be explained, in part, by the French perception of freedom, so very different from that of Anglo Saxon cultures. Loosely, and stealing from Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty,” the French are attached to the European Englightenment ideal of “positive liberty” as opposed to the more pragmatic and Hobbsian idea of  “negative liberty.” Negative liberty is the absence of constraint on, or interference with, an individual’s possible action. Positive liberty is much more ambitious. It’s the freedom of self-mastery and self-determination, the freedom to be in control of one’s destiny. Women like Deneuve, Bardot and Lahaie are attached to this idea of freedom. They’ve risen to the very top of the patriarchy by playing its rules and so have a vested interest in. They’re not concerned with the lowly struggles of women fighting for the mere right not to be molested.
There are some strange arguments being deployed against #BalanceTonPorc, including the view of routine sexual harassment as a cultural exception worth defending. I believe that, often, behind such arguments lies the fear of mediocrity. Another signatory of the Le Monde letter is Catherine Millet, author of the explicit and bestselling autobiography, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. Few are more terrified of the mediocre and unremarkable than Millet. Invited last December onto France Culture, a highbrow radio station, Millet contending that a woman who is raped doesn’t lose her integrity because her “consciousness” remains “intact.” Millet went on to say that she regretted never having been raped “because I could bear witness to the fact that you get over a rape.” This extraordinary detachment from the reality of a victim’s suffering stems partly, I think, from Millet’s rarefied position in French society. As hallowed “intellectual” the 69 year-old has come to feel herself above humanity.
Similar is the hostility that the writer Christine Angot displayed towards Sandrine Rousseau, a Green Party politician with whom she was recently invited on French TV to discuss sexual violence. Angot is the controversial author of the novel “Incest,” that recounts, in harrowing detail, a sexual relationship with her father. Rousseau was there to discuss her book, Parler (speak out), which denounces the culture of silence that prevented her from pressing charges against her Green Party colleague, Denis Baupin who sexually assaulted her back in the 90s. The judge ruled that there were grounds for a criminal enquiry but Baupin was acquitted due to the statute of limitations. In France, Rousseau pointed out, only 10% of women who claim to have been raped press charges and only 1% of those who commit acts of sexual aggression are brought to justice.
As Rousseau talked about the need to break the silence, Christine Angot became visibly uncomfortable. When the politician argued for structures to be put in place for complaints and for people “to be trained to receive the accounts of these victims,”Angot lost her temper: “Stop the blabla!” she cried. “You can’t deal with the question of sexual aggression in a political party!”
“Then what should you do?” pleaded Rousseau.
“You deal with it!”
Why does Angot the writer want Rousseau the politician to keep silent? A clue is in her reaction to the idea that she herself is a victim of sexual violence: “I am not part of a brochette of victims!” she protested.
Angot, who in 2013 received a medal from the Order of Arts and Letters, wants to keep her status as a writer. She does not want to swap it for that of victim. Like Deneuve, Millet and Lahaie, she denounces victimhood, which “dishonours women who have been dishonoured.” Revealingly, Angot went on that night, to argue against feminising the word writer from auteur to auteure. Why? Because she has no wish for the powerful cultural signifier, ‘writer’ to be assimilated with that of powerless womanhood. Sandrine Rousseau argues for the need to shine a light on sexual violence so that society might evolve. But Angot fears this idea. If the subject is out in the open it is lost to her as literary material. By sublimating her trauma she has earned her status in France’s hierarchical society and become powerful and free. Tant pis for the legions of women who are not.
A version of this post appeared in Prospect Magazine‘s March 2018 edition.


One thought on “Me Too: The French backlash

  1. Thank you. I find this a very persuasive explanation of a reaction/backlash that is incomprehsible to me (as a British woman who has worked in France for 20 years). I agree that the signatories of the letter have done well out of the status quo, however much they may have had to suppress their own vulnerability when younger.

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