Feminism in France After #MeToo

Here is a general recap on the discussion of the first Café Hypatia, including interesting articles on cases and public figures in the history of #MeToo in France that were brought up:

The clash between Christine Angot & Sandrine Rousseau during a television show in September 2017.

In January 2018, an opinion tribune, an open letter was signed by 100 notable women from the most elite milieus in France, including Catherine Deneuve, a renowned French actress, and was sent to Le Monde, denouncing/opposing the #MeToo movement because they see the “freedom to importune as indispensable to sexual liberty”. An article by Lucy Wadham argues that although there seems to be a generational issue, many millennials have also signed it.

An interesting dissertation (by an American then-PhD candidate in History) on the sexual revolution or the sexual liberation movement in France leading to the creation of Planning familial, as well as an article in a Medical History journal by Bibia Pavard, a French historian specialised in women and gender history.

The first version of the manifest was written by Sarah Chiche (article in French). Chiche is a novelist, also opposing the movement, whose novel was turned down and was asked to edit her ideas to correspond more to ‘today’s feminist’ society. She then co-wrote the final tribune with Catherine Millet, Catherine Robbe-Gillet, Peggy Sastre, and Abnousse Shalmanim.

“The first pig” refers to the case of Sandra Muller who coined the term #BalanceTonPorc or ‘expose your pig’. At first, Muller lost her case and had to pay 15 000€ plus 5 000€ for judicial fees. But she filed an appeal and finally won her case.

Éric Brion, her assaulter, claims to be pro #MeToo but against #BalanceTonPorc. After experiencing losses in his life after Muller won the case against him, he wrote a long letter to his daughters, Gabrielle and Flora, which he put in his book titled ‘Balance ton Père’ or ‘Expose Your Father’. He argues that women’s cause deserves better than “lies, court of social media, and public lynching”.

There is, indeed, a difference between #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc. #MeToo was started around 2006-2007 by Tarana Burke to denounce sexual violence, especially against members of visible minorities, and was used in France as a platform to empower women to share their stories and amplify the magnitude of the issue.

#BalanceTonPorc was intended to help women share the details of their experience, including the name of their abuser. There is an important discourse to be analysed, one that contributes to impacting and transforming the “classic French feminism” altogether.

Anna Breteau, a journalist at Le Point, suggests that the mainstream media failed to understand and represent the phenomenon of #BalanceTonPorc, which is largely driven by social-media and a collective of individuals, not the traditional activist groups. 

The thesis project of Lisa Nielsen, a Danish Master student in Intercultural Studies, also explores how the discourses in French mainstream media developed the feminist digital activism.

Following the tribune by Catherine Deneuve and the other 99 women, on 3 July 2018, the feminist collective/group NousToutes, which roughly translates to ‘All of Us Women’, was founded. Their objective is to build solidarity among women, because it is not just “me”, an individual woman, but “all of us women”, so everyone has to come in solidarity.

One of their biggest actions has been putting up fake street name signs bearing the names of famous women and/or victims of gender-based violence, because a large majority of street names in France is inspired by a man. Although it originally took place in Paris, since then it has spread to other cities too. They also organise nationwide marches and protests in France.

Articles on Adèle Haenel, a high-profile actress speaking up on MediaPart, one of which is on Valentine Monnier and Roman Polanski, who did a film on the Dreyfuss case, a Jew who was accused of state treason during the war period. Polanski then got a César award for his movie, and Haenel pressed charges because to her it felt like an insult to survivors of sexual violence.

Vanessa Springora, a journalist, wrote a memoir titled ‘Le Consentement or ‘Consent’, on her sexual relationship with a famous writer, Gabriel Matzneff, when he was 50 and she was 14 years old. No one reproached Matzneff, unless Denise Bombardier, a journalist from Quebec, Canada, who was also rarely heard of and when she was, she gained a lot of critiques from other figures defending Matzneff’s sexual behaviour.

#MeTooInceste – another memoir titled, « La Familia Grande », or ‘The Big Family’, was also written by Camille Kouchner, whose twin brother was sexually abused by their step-father, their mother’s second husband (under French law, a stepfather’s sexual abuse of a child qualifies as incest). This case can also be linked to the use of #SciencesPorcs by students of the elite higher education institution who speak out on sexual violence or complicity of the campus, because Kouchner comes from a family of French elites.

There is also #MeTooGay and other hashtags following the #MeToo movement in France. In pop culture, there is also the song, ‘Balance Ton Quoi’, by a Belgian singer, Angèle.

After the tribune of Catherine Deneuve, there will be a lot of debates. For example, there is Raphaël Glucksmann, a journalist, director, and political figure in France and the European Union, according to whom there is a theoretical confusion in the movement.

With Michel Hazanavicius, a film director, Glucksmann signed a tribune inventing the hashtag #WeToo (article in French), inviting men to join and support the #MeToo movement. It’s about getting out of masculine domination without falling into puritanism, while still reinforcing and moving towards sexual liberation.

The open letter, also written by Glucksmann, said that “we don’t want these freedoms [a reference to the tribune by the 100 women defending men’s ‘freedom to importune’] if women are subject to situations and structures of domination”, echoing Geneviève Fraisse who said that liberty is embodied in consent, and there is no liberty without equality.

Belinda Cannone, novelist and essayist, said also that we should be careful to not confuse masculine domination with desire, expression etc. Sexual violence and desire are two very distinctly different things.

Judith Butler was originally refused in France, but then those who refuse #MeToo will use Butler’s ideas. If not careful, #MeToo can have long-term negative effects, leading to neo-feminism. Sabrine Prokhoris, a philosopher and psychoanalyst, stated that #MeToo was a true intellectual terrorism, an illusionary liberation (interview in French), and that it brings justice by violating the law because it undermines the basic principle of presumption of innocence in front of the law.

In relation to the difference between #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc we have mentioned before, Anne Breteau, the Le Point journalist who pointed out the failure of media to understand the movement, also said that the problem with #BalanceTonPorc is that “Twitter is not a court of law”.

See also the Outreau case that entered the French media in 2001.

Another debate regarding #MeToo: distinction/separation between the actors and their work (a question: can this be related to cancel culture?). How far are we willing to separate an artist and their work of art?

The #MeToo movement has also exposed sexual harassment cases in catholic churches.

A lot of laws in France are still not developed. Only 10% of reported cases get to have a trial in court, and only 1% of perpetrators are prosecuted in cases that are ruled out as sexual violence and crime. But in August 2018, there has been a change in law regarding consent age limits – a bill to strengthen the combat against sexual and sexist violence was adopted by the French National Assembly.

In April 2021, the age of sexual consent is officially set higher at 15 years old, although President Emmanuel Macron has been planning to set it even higher. The ‘Romeo & Juliet’ clause was also introduced, allowing consensual sexual relations between a minor and an individual up to five years older. For example, a 15-year-old having a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old cannot be ruled out as rape. This clause obviously does not apply in cases of sexual assault and also considers incestuous sex with someone under 18 to be rape.

But we have to go back to the basic questions, what is the definition of rape? Should there be penetration? If victims are forced to do sexual things to the perpetrator, that too is a rape. The definition of rape and sexual assaults outside of rape is regulated in Article 222-23 and in Articles 222-22 and 222-27, respectively, of the French Penal Code, which also includes rules marital rape as aggravated rape.

Restorative justice is also discussed, including from the perspective of Michel Foucault, and how it’s related to consent, which is a complex thing in legal, moral, and practical terms. In the 1970s and 1980s, France was “an “atrocious” era for children,” where intellectuals at the time, including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gilles Deleuze, and André Glucksmann, tried to “defend” the “right of children to consent”.

In January 1977, they signed a petition published by Le Monde with other prominent French intellectuals to defend three men on trial for engaging in sexual acts with minors. This petition was written by Gabriel Matzneff, who was always open about his sexual relationships with minors, including through his book, Les moins de seize ans (The Under 16).

Matzneff gathered and used the signatures of de Beauvoir and the likes of her to demand the release of the three convicted pedophiles after passing three years in prison. In the petition, he used the argument that there is a difference between “what is categorised as crime” and “what they did”, which was “only” caressing and kissing the teenage victims who were only between 13 to 14 years old (see more in Beauvoir Melintas Abad, 2021).

Two years later, another petition was published by Libération, signed by 63 people also among them several prominent French thinkers, defending Gérard R. who was in trial for having sex with minor girls between the age of 6 and 12. These petitions basically suggested that young children have the right to govern their own bodies and sexuality because they are also human beings capable of empowerment to find happiness in sexual relationships.

In 1978, Michel Foucault also stated that assuming children to be incapable of explaining what happened and giving consent are abuses that are intolerable and quite unacceptable.

But what is considered consent? In the case of the petition of Matzneff in 1977, for example, the victims claimed to not have been forced to do anything. Many victims, especially women, thought they were in love, but in retrospect, they felt manipulated. Imbalance in power relations causes, in fact, a lot of non-consensual relationships. The construction and preservation of this imbalance is ingrained in gender norms in society – men and women are not raised the same way. Men are encouraged to chase, while women are told to sympathise more. Women are told that it’s rude to refuse, to say no, etc.

Manon Garcia, for example, talks a lot about consent, especially in her latest essay (in French) where she asks the question, is it possible to fully consent in a patriarchal society? How do we make love after #metoo?

Consent is actually an old concept in France, but now, everything is revisited.

François Poullain de La Barre (1648–1723) – an author, Catholic priest, Cartesian philosopher and feminist who is known for his treatisesDe l’égalité des deux sexes (On the Equality of the Two Sexes) (1673), De l’éducation des dames (On the Education of Ladies) (1674) and De l’excellence des hommes (On the Excellence of Men) (1675).

There are also Albert Camus & Jean-Jacques Rousseau who talked about consent. Their ideas then made a reappearance today, questioned and developed. As we have seen, it’s not only discussed in relation to heterosexual relationship between men and women, but also parents-children, between two minors, between a minor and an adult, etc.

#MeToo did bring positive changes to daily conducts/behaviour, generally less locker room jokes and more careful. But it has been found that different generations of men also have different reactions towards #MeToo. For instance, middle-aged men and teenage boys, because they live in two different generations, two societies, essentially two different worlds.

There are also women who “choose” to be lesbians because they don’t find equality in heterosexual relationships. But it is not without challenge, since they are heavily critiqued, especially by old generation feminists.

Elisabeth Badinter – historian, liberal feminist and advocate for women migrant workers’ rights in France. Some of her most famous works, which have been translated into 23 languages, are Mother Love: Myth & Reality and The Conflict: Woman & Mother (Le Conflit: la femme et la mère).

Regarding the question of the reception of #MeToo among French men: “If you never rape anyone or harass anyone, then don’t be scared of the movement. Just keep doing what you’re doing.”

Why is it difficult for women to support other women? Is there a historical aspect to it?

Gender essentialism might answer parts of the question. It is related to the Female Metaphor, which is the trinity of the Virgin, the Mother, and the Crone. According to Glenys Livingston, “[t]he three phases have been known by the ancients of many cultures, and others since throughout the ages, as Virgin/Maiden, Mother/Creator, Old One/Crone, mirrored as they are in the three chronological phases of the female: pre-menarchal young one, menstrual mother, and post-menopausal elder.”

How do we make feminist discussions more accessible to a larger population (from every walk of life, lower education level, tribal communities, etc.)? Contextualising is important. The government, community and religious leaders, especially in Indonesia where religions have an important place in society, as well as other actors, need to actively participate and contribute, open a conversation, make the F word, “feminism”, less taboo.

Illustration : Bonne année, BNF

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