Earlier this month, an open letter was published in Le Monde, denouncing the #MeToo movement as a man-hating puritanical witch-hunt.
Signed by prominent French actresses, writers, journalists, artists and singers, including Catherine Deneuve and Abnousse Shalmani, their article argues the #MeToo movement has gone too far, creating a ‘Stalinist’ climate of improper accusations, dragging private matters into the public sphere and ‘suffocating sexual liberty’.
The British and American response to this backlash was understandably critical, as the 100 French women were described as having been ‘lobotomised’ by their internalised misogyny. Their arguments have also been denounced within France, with French feminists such as Caroline De Haas describing the signatories as, “The annoying colleague or tiresome uncle who doesn’t understand what’s happening”.
However, a significant proportion of French society welcomed Le Monde 100’s criticism of ‘radicalised feminism’ being imported from across the Atlantic.
Why has a backlash like this developed, and what does this mean for the #MeToo project? And how are we supposed to respond to this ignorant outcry?
Gender relations in France are inherently different to British and American values. The French have long been known for their more fluid attitudes and different sexual norms. Although these differences are not black and white, it is wrong for them to be dismissed as simply ‘cultural’, when many French women are themselves unhappy with these attitudes, as the #BalanceTonPorc movement (a French equivalent to #MeToo) demonstrates. This movement has been as monumental in France as #MeToo has been in other parts of the western hemisphere.
What is most problematic about Le Monde 100's perception of the #MeToo movement, is the idea that modern feminism constitutes ‘man hating’. This dismisses sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour. “Rape is a crime” read the letter, “but insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression”.
Misogyny, when experienced so regularly and so consistently, has easily become internalised by these women, whose confused ideas of ‘sexual liberation’ have led to a warped understanding that sexism is sometimes acceptable and sometimes not. They promote the idea that accusations of groping and workplace harassment are somehow watering down the movement and damaging its efficacy for real victims.
More troublesome still is the underling classism within this open letter. The Le Monde cohort are almost exclusively white, middle-class and in privileged positions of power within the arts world. They show no awareness that their situation would be vastly different if they were not from the same milieu. As The New York Times Cartoonist Coleen Doran tweeted, “Catherine Deneuve might have very different opinions about harassment if she weren’t an extraordinarily beautiful, very rich white woman living in a bubble of heightened privilege. And had some empathy”. Intersectional feminism and womanism is not a concept these women are familiar with.
This mentality is a saddening portrayal of both French gender and class relations. It has the potential to scar the #MeToo movement as it moves forward. As comforting as it would be to denounce this open letter and the women who signed it, we have a duty to not only confront but engage with this opinion, as the debate over the borders of sexual harassment and misconduct develops.
If we understand why ideas like this still exist, especially among women themselves, we can make the move to start changing the mentality that allowed the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Woody Allen to continue in their circles for so long. To challenge these opinions, to define what sexual misconduct is, and explain why these actions are equally as unacceptable as more serious sexual crimes, will help the movement to move forward and achieve its goals.
A discussion of the grey areas of sexual harassment is uncomfortable and difficult, but this discussion has to be had with all cards on the table, including the French, if systematic change is to happen.