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French #MeToo Open Letter About Sexual Harassment

All About the Men: The Biggest Problem With France's #MeToo Letter

This feature is dedicated to our #NoChangeNoFuture initiative. From the Women's March, to Australia voting yes to same sex marriage, and the #MeToo movement, 2017 taught us to look beyond ourselves and come together as a collective of powerful women who are writing our own history. Join us as we cancel setting one-dimensional personal resolutions this January and commit to being the change we want to see. Because without change, there is no future.

The day after Hollywood showed its support for #MeToo at the Golden Globes, 100 prominent French women, including actress 74-year-old actress Catherine Deneuve, made headlines around the world — but for a different reason. The group penned and co-signed an open letter published in Le Monde newspaper, criticising the French version of the #MeToo movement #balancetonporc (translated as "expose your pig").

The article (in English here) sparked an international scandal. Deneuve and her co-signers denounced the recent wave of sexual harassment accusations, calling it "puritanism in the name of a so-called greater good." They champion men's rights to pick up and come onto women under the guise of seduction or chivalry, and the sentiment, "we defend a freedom to bother as indispensable to sexual freedom." I — like many others — was shocked when reading the letter. I'm an Australian who's been living and working in Paris for six years, and, while I don't think I'll every be a true Parisienne or understand the subtle complexities of French culture, I have the advantage of seeing it from an outsider's perspective.

Some have brushed off the letter with a sigh of, "Oh, that's so French". But is it just a cultural reaction? French women are often portrayed in the media as strong, independent and liberal, sexually free and fighting for equality, Simone de Beauvoir-style. And while yes, that is the case in many ways — for example, contraception is widely available, childcare is more than affordable, women are encouraged to work, to study, to hold positions of power — it is also a huge contradiction.

France has lead progression on many world issues — it was the first country to legalise abortion — yet it remains a very traditional country, weighed down by centuries of history and ingrained gender roles catering to a macho, patriarchal society.

"Deneuve, the beautiful, rich, successful French icon who made a name for herself playing sex symbols, has no reason to try and tumble the male power structure."

Sexism is still so entrenched in French culture and women are repressed often without even realising it. There is immense pressure on women to be effortlessly beautiful, slim and the "perfect" girlfriend/wife/mother to keep their man faithful, a clichéd female stereotype reinforced everywhere you look. Seduction, which doesn't necessarily serve a sexual purpose, is rampant in everyday interactions; it's all about "playing the game" and adhering to traditional codes.

Deneuve, the beautiful, rich, successful French icon who made a name for herself playing sex symbols, has no reason to try and tumble the male power structure. She speaks for a certain level of women; women like her co-signatories who are mostly white writers, creatives, intellectuals and academics, who have the privilege of being able to voice their opinions on a public platform. But what about the average woman, a nanny, a shop assistant, a student, who has no-one to stand up for her on the metro when a man makes degrading remarks about her body, when she has to pretend to be temporarily deaf to avoid obviously unwanted advances, or when she is unwillingly hit on repeatedly because, as the letter says, "sexual impulses are, by nature, offensive and primitive"?

The letter writers talk about men's unfair punishment, listing the victims as "men who've been disciplined in the workplace, forced to resign etc., when their only crime was to touch a woman's knee, try to steal a kiss, talk about 'intimate' things during a work meal, or send sexually-charged messages to women who did not return their interest." But what about what these women wanted? If a woman has made it clear that she isn't interested, then why should she have to accept "sexually-charged" messages or have a kiss stolen from her? Is the man really the victim in those scenarios?

Thankfully, the letter, Deneuve and her 99 peer co-signatories are not representative of the greater part of the French population. While feminism remains a highly divisive topic in France, the letter, or rather the response to it, shows that the famous French revolutionary spirit is still burning strong. Perhaps this was simply the catalyst needed to start that fire, by igniting conversations and shining a light on issues that have stayed in the dark for far too long.

Image Source: Getty
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