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Woman behind France’s #MeToo movement in court for defamation

Angela Weiss / AFP | Sqndrq Muller, creator of the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc, in New York on October 17, 2017.

The woman behind France’s version #MeToo movement came face-to-face in a Paris court Wednesday with the man she accused of making lewd comments to her in a tweet that inspired thousands of others to share their own stories of sexual impropriety.

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Sandra Muller, a New-York based French journalist, is being sued for defamation by French TV executive Eric Brion, who in October 2017 she accused on Twitter of making vulgar comments aimed at her during a work function five years earlier.

“You have big breasts. You are my type of woman. I will make you orgasm all night,” Muller’s tweet, sent in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal, quoted Brion as saying.

In a separate tweet [below, in French], she implored other women to reveal their own experiences of sexual harassment in the workplace using the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc (squeal on your pig).

Soon, social media was flooded with women sharing similar stories under the hashtag. An English-language equivalent, #MeToo, went viral after American actress Alyssa Milano used it in a tweet two days after Muller made her online declaration.

‘Long descent into hell’

Brion, the former head of the Équidia television channel, told the court Wednesday that although he had made the remarks to Muller, he was not “a sexual harasser” and had apologised to Muller the next day via text message.

He said he was taking legal action because he had already been tried “by social media” where it is “impossible to defend yourself”.

Since Muller’s tweet, Brion said he had been plunged into "a long descent into hell" and had received "insults from everywhere" and been portrayed as the “number one pig" in the media, causing him to lose his partner and his job.

Brion is seeking 50,000 euros ($55,000) in damages, 15,000 euros ($17,000) in legal fees and demanding that Muller delete the tweet in which his name is mentioned.

Outpouring, backlash

Muller’s tweet and the viral hashtag it inspired was seen as a pivotal moment in the outpouring of accusations and demands for action on sexual harassment that followed the Weinstein scandal and propelled Muller to unexpected celebrity in her native France.

"It was a cry of anger, without any intention of causing harm,” Muller told the court Wednesday.

She was one of a group of women named as Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ in 2017 for their role in establishing the #MeToo movement – alongside Milano, actress Ashley Judd, singer Taylor Swift and others who had come forward to help shed light on sexual harassment and abuse cases.

One year after Muller’s tweet, #BalanceTonPorc had appeared on close to one million tweets, according to the social media tracking site Visibrain.com.

She “created the conditions for the women to speak freely’, said Muller’s lawyer, François Baroin. Muller “gave courage to others, she paved the way”, he said.

But in France, where one in five women have experienced sexual harassment while at work but only five percent of cases are ever taken to court according to a government-backed study, the movement soon hit a backlash, with some questioning if social media was the right place to air such accusations.

Others complained the movement had gone too far, with a group of prominent French women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, accusing the campaign against sexual harassment of becoming “puritanical” and defending a man’s right to “bother” women in an open letter to Le Monde.

Brion’s lawyers claimed that Muller’s initial tweet had been based on a “lie” as Brion was “not a harasser”.

“Yes, BalanceTonPorc is a superb phenomenon, but beside that, there was slander, rumor," said Nicolas Bénoit, representing Brion.

‘Fight to the end’

Muller though has remained defiant in the face of legal action, vowing to “see this fight through to the end”.

“#balancetonporc has allowed victims to make their voices heard and shed light on a real societal problem that remains taboo,” she said in a Facebook post in January 2018 in response to Brion’s defamation suit.

“I hope the trial will provide an opportunity to have a real debate about how to combat sexual harassment,” she said.

France has already seen the effects of the movement it helped trigger, with the government unveiling a number of new laws designed to combat sexual violence, including on-the-spot fines for sexual harassment in public places.

Meanwhile, a new hashtag - #BalanceTonMetro – inspired by Muller’s original - has emerged as a means for women to denounce sexual harassment and assault experienced on Paris’s metro system and other public transport.

The court is set to deliver its verdict on September 25.

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