‘Une liberté d’importuner’
On 9 January, Le Monde published an open letter from a hundred women calling for a reconsideration of the ‘excessive’ #MeToo campaign. Among the signatories were writers, editors, translators, academics, gynaecologists, psychotherapists, artists, filmmakers, actors, critics, journalists, photographers and radio hosts. The broadside, drafted by five writers and journalists including Catherine Millet and Catherine Robbe-Grillet, argued that the campaign, though ‘legitimate’ in its calling out of sexual violence in the wake of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, had escalated into policing the relationships between men and women in a way that was detrimental to sexual freedom.
Sexuality, the letter said, is an impulsive and brutal force, which we have no business taming and regimenting. In the name of this view of sexuality, it is imperative that men maintain the right to ‘importuner’ (‘bother’) women. It seemed to me that the letter was defending not only men’s right to ‘bother’ women, but the 'right' of women to accommodate themselves to misogyny. Its language chimed with the words of Caroline Dandridge, who hired the 'hostesses' for the Presidents Club last week: 'You just have to put up with the annoying men,' she told them.
The most famous signatory of the letter in Le Monde, Catherine Deneuve, has since apologised to the victims of sexual abuse whom it might have offended, but she has not distanced herself from the text so much as from peripheral statements issued by some of its other supporters. She says she will not defend Weinstein, but in the past has defended Roman Polanski against allegations of rape, a term which she says she ‘had always thought to be excessive’ in his case.
The letter has been received as an illustration of a generational clash between feminists of Deneuve’s age and the younger feminists who have spoken out on social media. But not all the women who supported the text were of Deneuve’s generation. And there is another clash, between the letter in Le Monde and the Manifeste des 343, published in 1971 in Le Nouvel Observateur, which issued a list of 343 women who said they’d had an abortion, then still illegal in France. The manifesto, written by Simone de Beauvoir, denounced the historical condition of women as individuals who still do not, in modern society, have ownership of their own body – ‘n’ont pas la libre disposition de leur corps’ – but also the oppression of working-class Frenchwomen who could not afford a trip to England to have a legal (and safe) abortion.
Among those who signed the document were Marguerite Duras, Agnes Varda, Jeanne Moreau – and Catherine Deneuve, who this month defended herself against accusations of anti-feminism by reminding people that she had signed the Manifeste des 343. But the anti-#MeToo letter – which argues that, because no woman can be reduced to her body, women should not expect their freedom to begin with their bodies – is a step backwards from 1971.
It has been suggested that there is something quintessentially ‘French’ about the letter in Le Monde. (In 1975, soon after abortion was decriminalised in France, de Beauvoir said on French TV that The Second Sex had been better received in the United States than in France because men and women were more equal in the US.) ‘Call it a cliché if you like,’ Agnès C. Poirier wrote in the New York Times on 12 January, ‘but ours is a culture that, for better and for worse, views seduction as a harmless and pleasurable game, dating back to the days of medieval “amour Courtois”. As a result, there has been a kind of harmony between the sexes that is particularly French.’ But the conditions of such harmony, if it exists, have always been decided by men.
The letter asks to be read as the ‘alternative voice’, but it is the voice of reaction. And plenty of Frenchwomen have taken issue with it. The historian Michelle Perrot, for example, issued a response expressing regret that a hundred liberal, educated women should have used their prestige to refuse their solidarity to the women who have suffered from harassment and until very recently been silenced.
There may be a reason the #MeToo campaign received a more qualified response in the French debate than it did elsewhere, but it has less to do with ‘culture’ than with language. When it was taken up on French social media, #MeToo was clumsily translated as ‘balance ton porc’ (‘call out your pig’). This more vindictive phrase, attributed to a French journalist based in New York, could not, unlike #MeToo, be read as anything other than an injunction to denounce men and publicly smear them, which not all victims of sexual harassment will feel comfortable with, or liberated by. But that doesn’t entitle privileged, educated citizens of any gender to defend the right of men to 'bother' women, especially not in the name of such an intellectually flawed idea as cultural exceptionalism.