At the center of this conversation is the case of Christophe Girard, Paris’s deputy mayor in charge of culture since 2001, after stories came to light of his friendship with and support of novelist Gabriel Matzneff. Matzneff has openly written about having sexual contact with children, and for decades enjoyed impunity with the support of a large part of the French intelligentsia.
This summer, newly elected city councilors Alice Coffin and Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, who are part of the same political coalition as Girard, began to actively campaign to prevent his renewal as deputy mayor. As Girard’s appointment was confirmed, some activists took the streets to protest. He was forced to resign as deputy mayor, though he remained a city councilor. (Girard has since been accused of sexual abuse by a man who alleges he was coerced into sex while a teenager. Girard has denied the allegations but is currently under investigation.)
But after Girard called out the “rise of the cancel culture” as a “new McCarthyism” in response to the allegations about his friendship with Matzneff, a large part of the French cultural elite came to his rescue. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, tweeted solidarity for “her friend,” asking “What kind of democracy do we live in, since law is trampled on by rumors, confusion and suspicion?” The chief of the Paris Police, Didier Lallement, known for his conservative views, made a tribute to Girard the day after he resigned, saying he “gave [Lallement] a great lesson of dignity.” The address was promptly followed by a standing ovation from several members of the council.
And in a long op-ed, in which she omits that she and Girard are close friends (she was his best woman at his wedding), writer Mazarine Pingeot claimed that such activism is willing to substitute the domination of the “Western white male” to one of “a youth without desire but full of anger.” Her fear echoes a background noise that has been taking more and more space in current debates: one that presents “cancel culture” as a “new censorship” endangering our freedom of speech.
Yet it is those who are young, female, LGBT+ or members of minority communities who continue to face repercussions for speaking out — not the old elite.
After Lallement’s address and the ovation, Coffin said she “exploded,” shouting “shame, shame.” Hidalgo then demanded the removal of Coffin and Rémy-Leleu from the leading majority. Coffin and Rémy-Leleu, who were known as feminist and LGBTQ activists before joining politics, received threats and had to be placed under police protection.
The resistance to change was also evident earlier this year when activists called for the boycott of filmmaker Roman Polanski’s last movie. Polanski fled the United States in 1978 after being charged with rape and pleading guilty to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, and has more recently been accused of rape by 11 other women, which he has denied. Yet, not only was the film not canceled, but Polanski also received multiple awards. By all indications, the power is definitely not on the side of the so-called new censors.
And the debate is ongoing in various other spheres. Recently a book glorifying hunting was prefaced by the minister of justice, Éric Dupond-Moretti, who concluded his section with the mocking sentence: “This book will be used by the ayatollahs of ecology to fire the barbecue on which they will cook their soy steaks." This outraged environmental activists. Hunting is widely practiced in France, but is also seen as a threat to biodiversity and raises concerns about animal suffering. Instead of understanding that mind-sets are changing, the hunting lobby instead caricatured these concerns as “madness” and “punitive activism” against French traditions.
Similar points were made when antiracism activist Franco Lollia was arrested and charged after writing the words “state-sponsored anti-blackness” on a statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who promoted slavery. National Assembly president Richard Ferrand said it was “absurd” to “revisit history” in such a way. Many other politicians condemned the action, again offering proof that institutions are standing to protect the status quo — and against activists, who are often powerless despite the outcry that they are able to generate.
Indeed, just as in the United States, the intensity of debate about the removal of statues erected to glorify colonialists or supporters of slavery has grown in recent months since the killing of George Floyd. But President Emmanuel Macron rejected the debates in an address, saying “The Republic will not erase any name of its history … and not tear down any statue.”
Yet those new voices who are brave enough to shake the old world are not threatening French culture, history or freedom of speech. Instead, they are emblematic of a major shift in society, leveraged by social media, which allowed new spaces to be opened for minorities and younger generations.
For a long time, impunity has been the prevailing rule protecting members of the elite. Asking for accountability is not a “cancel culture.” It is the defense of the values of the French republic.