Catherine Deneuve and the French #MeToo battle
Women who denounce the ‘puritanical witch-hunt’ are out of touch, say younger critics
Catherine Deneuve: ‘Heavy-handed or clumsy come-ons are not an offence. Nor is gallantry a macho attack.’ Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA
French women are lining up on either side of a heated debate, pitting defenders of men’s “right to importune”, against a younger generation who say that tolerance of sexual harassment must end.
The debate was sparked by an open letter signed by the actor Catherine Deneuve and 100 other women in Le Monde newspaper. The letter condemns the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc (“squeal on your pig”) movements as a “puritanical witch-hunt” rooted in “hatred of men and sexuality”.
“Rape is a crime,” the text signed by Deneuve begins. “But heavy-handed or clumsy come-ons are not an offence. Nor is gallantry a macho attack.”
The letter goes on to denounce the “puritanism” which seeks to “eternally confine women to the status of victims, of poor little things under the yoke of phallocratic demons, like in the good old days of witchcraft.”
Deneuve and other signatories reproach the millions of denunciations of sexual harassment relayed by social media since October as a form of public trial in which individuals cannot defend themselves.
“This summary justice has already claimed victims: men punished professionally, forced to resign, when they had done nothing more than touch a knee, try to steal a kiss, spoken of ‘intimate’ things during a professional dinner or sent a sexually connoted message to a woman who was not attracted to them.”
The French minister for gender equality, Marlène Schiappa, said she knew of no French men fired for touching a woman’s knee.
Deneuve et al assert that the “fever that sent the ‘pigs’ to the abattoir, far from helping women achieve autonomy, serves the enemies of sexual freedom, religious extremists, the worse reactionaries”.
The movement has, they claim, created “the climate of a totalitarian society . . . We defend the freedom to importune, which is indispensable to sexual freedom . . . We do not recognise ourselves in this feminism which . . . assumes the face of hatred of men and of sexuality.”
While some commentators agree on the need to recognise degrees of seriousness of abuse, reaction in France and abroad has been mostly negative.
Catherine Deneuve and other French women tell the world how their interiorised misogyny has lobotomised them to the point of no return
Asia Argento, an actor who accused the US film producer Harvey Weinstein of having raped her, condemned the Le Monde letter. “Catherine Deneuve and other French women tell the world how their interiorised misogyny has lobotomised them to the point of no return,” Argento tweeted.
The US-educated, Franco-Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz, who teaches at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and at the EHESS in Paris, notes that in France, unlike the US, “libertine culture has played an important political role among elites since the 18th century”.
The Marquis de Sade, who was perhaps the most famous 18th-century libertin was an aristocrat. Libertinage [the absence of sexual morals] never caught on among the working classes or peasants. It was part of the aristocratic onslaught on church power,” Illouz says.
The best known signatories of the open letter are associated with modern-day libertinage.
In Luis Bunuel’s 1967 film Belle de Jour, Deneuve played a doctor’s wife who becomes a daytime prostitute for sexual thrills.
Catherine Robbe-Grillet, a co-author of the letter, is a self-described “mistress of sado-masochistic ceremonies” and the author of numerous works on bondage and sado-masochism. She and her friend Catherine Millet, another signatory, cowrote “Neither guilty nor victims; free to prostitute themselves.”
Millet appeared nude on the cover of her 2001 book “The sex life of Catherine M.” It won the Sade award, was translated into 33 languages and sold close to 2.5 million copies worldwide.
Millet wrote that she had no idea of the number of “anonymous” sexual partners she’d had, and recounts group sex in the woods and in an underground car park.
The signatories of the letter interpret the #MeToo phenomenon “as yet another attempt to discipline, regulate and legislate sexual practices”, says Illouz. “What is motivating them is a libertarian view of sexuality, the idea that sexual freedom should trump all other values and that sexuality should not be scrutinised.”
That was exactly the argument of the former IMF head Dominique Strauss Kahn when he was tried, unsuccessfully, for pimping in 2015.
“Look at the identity of many of the women who signed the letter,” says Illouz. “They remind one of the libertines of the 18th century. They are powerful women who have nothing to fear. Sexual harassment and sexual power plagues women of all classes, but especially women of vulnerable socioeconomic backgrounds who must often choose between a livelihood and an insistent and menacing boss. It is disturbing they forgot these women in their appeal.”
Differences in social class were a subtext to the debate. A counter-attack to the letter, signed by several dozen women and titled “The pigs and their allies are right to be worried,” was published on the France Info website by the militant feminist and politician Caroline De Haas.
“Many of (the signatories) are quick to denounce sexism when it comes from poor neighbourhoods,” De Haas wrote. “But if a man from their milieu puts a hand on an ass, he’s exercising his ‘right to importune’ . . . Their old world is disappearing. Very slowly, but inexorably.”
A passage in the letter about the frotteurs who rub up against women in the metro at rush hour caused great offence. Women “needn’t feel forever traumatised” by the experience, the signatories wrote. “Since when does Catherine Deneuve take the metro?” De Haas asked on Europe 1 radio.
Age helped to determine French attitudes. Deneuve is 74. Robbe-Grillet is 87. Millet is 59. Most of their detractors are half their age.
“For women of a certain generation there is a confusion between playfulness, eroticism and seduction on the one hand, and benevolent male power,” says Illouz.
“Benevolent male power wants to protect women as soft or special creatures. It also posits women as objects of romantic worship. Gallantry – a term the signatories used and want to preserve – is a form of benevolent male power.” There is, she says, “a fault line” between women of Deneuve’s generation and those educated in feminism from the 1980s onward.
Last March, Deneuve defended Roman Polanski, the film director who in 1977 pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl
De Haas accuses the signatories of the Le Monde letter of “defending paedo-criminals”. Last March, Deneuve defended Roman Polanski, the film director who in 1977 pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl, and who has been accused of forcing himself on other minors.
At the height of the Weinstein scandal, feminists tried unsuccessfully to stop a tribute to Polanski at the French Cinémathèque.
It may be more than a coincidence that Sandra Muller, the French journalist who launched the “squeal on your pig” hashtag, lives in the US. French feminism has traditionally focused on equal pay and position, but paid relatively little attention to sexual politics, says Illouz.
“The US feminist Catherine MacKinnon in the 1970s thought quite brilliantly that women were oppressed through sexuality,” Illouz says. “She was often mocked in the popular media in the 1980s.
“What has happened with Weinstein has vindicated MacKinnon’s ideas. She was way ahead of her time . . . What American feminists have been talking about for decades was doubly true.
“It is accurate that women are devalued through sexuality. It is also accurate that such devaluation of women is or was widely accepted. The silence and collaboration of the whole environment of Harvey Weinstein are testimonies to the ways in which everyone participated because male sexual power seemed like a natural privilege.”
There are major differences in French and American attitudes towards sexuality, Illouz says. Not only is there no libertine tradition in the US, but Protestantism was more tolerant of divorce.
“In France, Catholic marriages were often arrangements between husbands and wives, leading them to have non-institutional sex lives.”
In modern times, Illouz continues, “sexuality and the impact of feminism have been quite different in the two countries . . . French men and women experience sexuality as a place of freedom. In the puritan US tradition, sexuality was a dangerous thing. You had to control it.”
Judging from the backlash against the Le Monde letter, Deneuve and her friends are losing the battle for public opinion. The sheer scale of harassment is coming to the surface in what President Emmanuel Macron termed “our whole society sick with sexism”.
“I am not a feminist. I wear make-up and I try to please men, but I find the [Le Monde] letter offensive,” says Aurore a 38-year-old, high-ranking French civil servant.
“There’s a great deal of pressure in a ministerial cabinet. The atmosphere is sexually charged,” Aurore continues.
In her previous position, a minister’s speechwriter invited her for a drink after work. “He tried to kiss me in the street. When I refused, he sent me text messages asking why. Then he lied to my boss about me. My boss said he’d worked with the speechwriter for two years and believed him. So I shut up.”
Aurore used to think filing lawsuits over sexual harassment was silly. “Now I realise the Americans were 10 years ahead of us. France has turned the page of ‘gallantry’. We’re entering a new age, and that’s a good thing, because we put up with so much. Seduction is possible without aggression.”