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How Deneuve’s #MeToo pushback triggered fierce debate, in France and beyond

Miguel Median, AFP | The letter appearing to belittle groping on public transport and other instances of sexual harassment has been widely criticised and derided.

The publication this week of a letter signed by film star Catherine Deneuve and dozens of other women accusing the #MeToo movement of inciting "hatred of men and sexuality" has sparked an intense debate across news outlets and social media.


The open letter, published by French daily Le Monde on January 9, marked a pushback against the #MeToo movement and its French equivalent, #BalanceTonPorc (call out your pig). It questioned whether #MeToo, born out of the allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weintstein, had gone too far; likening it to a witch-hunt that "claims to promote the liberation and protection of women, only to enslave them to a status of eternal victim.” The letter spoke of the need to defend “a freedom to bother” as “indispensable to sexual freedom”, while criticising a feminism that “beyond the denunciation of abuses of power, takes the face of a hatred of men and sexuality.”

The text has triggered an avalanche of criticism, though not without some voices coming out in support of its signatories. FRANCE 24 takes a look at some of the reactions in France as well as in the US and the UK – two countries where #MeToo has seen serious traction.

'Lack of solidarity'

The letter, signed by some 100 women including actresses, writers, scholars and artists, sparked a backlash in France, a country accustomed to debates over how to tackle everything from persistent catcalling to rampant domestic abuse.

Marlene Schiappa, France’s junior minister for gender equlity, denounced the letter as “shocking”. Schiappa remarked that, “We already have trouble making girls understand that a man rubbing his penis against her in the subway is an assault, and so I think these views [expressed in the letter] are dangerous.” The minister added, “For a man to press himself up against a woman on the metro in this way is a sexual assault. It is punishable by 3 years in prison and a 75,000 euro fine.”

Schiappa’s predecessor in her ministerial position, Laurence Rossignol, struck a similar note on Twitter. She lamented “this strange anguish to be no longer living under the gaze and desire of men, that leads intelligent women to write such nonsense.”

But not all French female politicians have condemned the letter.

Former housing minister Christine Boutin, a staunch conservative, voiced her support for the signatories, in the name of a “French spirit, stemming from a courteous spirit” – a notion she didn't elaborate on.

On the French radio talk show Les Grandes Gueules, Nadine Morano, an EU lawmaker for the conservative Les Républicains, agreed with the approach taken by the signatories: “You can be bothered by someone in a repetitive way, but in the end…all situations are different, all people are different. Ultimately, the key word is consent,” she argued, adding that the denouncing of men played out across social media was “scandalous”.

French academics have also waded into the debate, with several criticising the letter, and pointing out what they view as its inherent contradictions.

Geneviève Fraisse, a prominent philosopher and historian of feminist tought, said the text was guilty of ignoring nuance. In remarks to French daily 20 minutes, Fraisse said, “They talk of a ‘hatred of men and sexuality.’ But when a man abuses a woman in one form or another, does this not count as sex hatred as well?”

Michelle Perrot, a professor of contemporary history at Paris-Diderot University, said in comments to Le Monde that she was stunned by “the lack of solidarity” displayed by the letter's signatories, and their “lack of awareness of actual violence suffered [by women]”. Perrot went to question the point central to the letter’s argument – that women are consigning themselves to the status of "eternal victims". She pointed out that on the contrary, the #MeToo movement has seen women both individually and collectively take action, resist external pressures, and challenge an oppressive situation that “they no longer want”.

Missing #MeToo's political significance

Writing in British newspaper The Guardian, novelist Van Badham asserts that the anger fueling #MeToo stems from the desire to seek joy from sexual interactions “on our own terms” and not through abuse or exploitation. She slams Catherine Deneuve and her fellow signatories as privileged, and out of touch with the reality of “waitresses, shop assistants, soldiers, scientists, students…who were ‘hit on’, said no…and were ignored.”

New York Times cartoonist Colleen Doran voiced a similar criticism of Deneuve on Twitter, suggesting the actress’s opinion on harassment might be different “if she weren’t an extraordinarily beautiful, very rich white woman living in a bubble of heightened privilege.”

Italian actress Asia Argento, who was among the first women to accuse Harvey Weinstein, also added to the backlash, tweeting: “Deneuve and other French women tell the world how their interiorized misogyny has lobotomized them to the point of no return.”

As in France, some have expressed understanding or support for the stance taken by Deneuve and the other signatories.

American literary critic Daphne Merkin, writing in the New York Times, asserts that though women in public may have been saying “the right things” by expressing approval in the “takedown of maleficent characters who prey on vulnerable women”, in private the reality is far different. She writes that outside of the public realm women speak of the reality of “real life”, and are as likely to express dismay at the disappearing act of "flirting", as they are about male predatory behaviour.

Merkin voices her support for the letter as necessary to push back against a movement that left unchecked could lead to a “kind of censorship practiced by religious zealots”, adding: "Consider the fact that the campaign last month against the Met to remove a Balthus painting that shows a young girl in a suggestive light was organized by two young Manhattan feminists."

Nuance has been called for by others when addressing what counts as sexual harassment.

LA Times journalist Cathy Young praised the “indubitably positive effects” of #MeToo, yet questionned whether many women would support a ban on all flirting in the workplace, as “there is little doubt many women enjoy some degree of sexual interaction in their work lives.” The key for Young is to mark the distinction between unacceptable “sexual abuse”, and “sexual interaction” – that will always occur unless “the workplace is regulated to a dehumanizing degree”.

Author Laura Kipnis mused on so-called “gray areas”, asserting that women’s “bodies are zoned”: with what is acceptable changing according to what parts of the body are touched. However, Kipnis went on to chastise the authors of the "stunningly silly" letter for having completely missed "the political importance and the political lineage of #MeToo: the latest step in a centuries long political struggle for women to simply control our own bodies."

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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