PARIS — So now we have the backlash. And the backlash to the backlash.
Either way, France’s national debate about sexual assault rages on.
On Tuesday, 100 prominent French women — including the actress Catherine Deneuve, now 74 — signed an op-ed that ran in Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, and almost immediately went viral. In the piece, the women — writers, journalists, business leaders — wrote that they essentially have had enough with France’s version of the #MeToo campaign, known here as #balancetonporc (roughly, “squeal on your pig,” meaning call the guy out).
In the way that other feminists have gradually begun to do in the United States, these French women object to what they see as an emerging movement that ultimately denies women agency by immediately casting them as victims. “Rape is a crime,” the op-ed begins. “But hitting on someone, even awkwardly, is not, and neither is gallantry a masculine aggression.”
Like some of their American counterparts, the authors of this op-ed also expressed discomfort with a lack of due process in cases that are aired on social media, where the accused do not always have the chance to defend themselves from allegations that ultimately end their careers. “Public confession — and the incursion of self-proclaimed prosecutors in the private sphere — all of this creates the climate of a totalitarian society,” they wrote.
“As women, we do not recognize ourselves in this feminism, which goes beyond denouncing abuse of power and has taken the form of a hatred of men and of sexuality,” the piece continues. It goes on to feature some particularly explosive lines, including: “We defend the right to annoy, indispensable for sexual liberty.”
In fact, some of the signers have made names for themselves in exploring the boundaries of sexual freedom. Among the 100 women who lent their names to the article was Catherine Millet, who wrote the 2001 memoir “The Sex Life of Catherine M.,” which describes her experiences with masturbation and group sex, among other things.
In any case, the op-ed did not sit well with some French women, especially those of a slightly younger generation. Their reaction was swift and forceful.
“In this article, there are deeply shocking things,” Marlène Schiappa, the French government’s minister for equality between and men and women, said in an interview on France Culture, a public radio program. “We already have a lot of trouble making girls understand that a man rubbing his penis up against them in the Metro, that’s an assault. I think it’s dangerous to hold this view.”
French feminist activist Caroline De Haas had even sharper words. In a response published Wednesday — co-signed by nearly 30 other women — she declared: “Many of [the signers of the Le Monde article] are quick to denounce sexism when it comes from men in working-class neighborhoods. But the hand on the butt, when it’s done by men in their milieu, is, for them, ‘the right to annoy.’” That accusation is not without racial overtones: In France, working-class neighborhoods are often synonymous with minority communities.
“More fundamentally, the op-ed … is putting the blame on women and, on top of that, on the very women who have been harassed or assaulted, accusing them of falling for victimization and denying men the right to act upon their sexual impulses,” said Cécile Alduy, a professor of French politics at Stanford University who has written widely on gender issues in France.
Alduy noted that the letter ends with the sentence: “Notre liberté intérieure est inviolable,” or “Our inner freedom is inviolable.”
“Literally 'un-rapeable' in French,” said Alduy. “Really? Being physically raped is inconsequential because of a supposedly intact sense of dignity?”
The debate appears unlikely to subside anytime soon, but it does complicate the picture of France as a society wholeheartedly committed to fighting sexual assault — at least on the same terms and in the same way.