The debate on sexual harassment is raging once again in France. Rekindled by an op-ed piece published in Le Monde and signed by some 100 intellectuals, actresses, and publishers, the dispute has highlighted a lack of understanding between French and American women.
In an open letter published on January 8, 2018, around 100 French women condemned the #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc movements as a “campaign of denunciation and public accusations of people […] without giving them the chance to respond or defend themselves.” The signatories of the letter criticize the “puritanism” that infantilizes women and imprisons them in the role of “victims,” while defending men’s “freedom to pester.”
Condemning those who condemn harassment. According to many international journalists, only France could have performed such a stark U-turn. While the open letter inspired reactions from many French women (including novelist Leïla Slimani, and journalist Laure Adler) it does underline a specific characteristic of French culture: the persistent cliché of the liberated woman who uses seduction as a weapon and plays on the codes of “courtly love.” In a comic strip on the subject, feminist illustrator Emma ironically suggests “Yes to harassment, if it’s in high society.”
Rachel Donadio, an American journalist living in France, examined the complexity of sexism in her adoptive country, where “women grow up with the idea that they should know themselves, and that they can use seduction like a weapon as they see fit.” In an article published in The Atlantic, she asks whether this is “empowerment” or “a sign of a deeply sexist culture”?
In the New Yorker, Lauren Collins drives home the fact that the women who signed the letter in Le Monde are “mostly […] white members of the professional and artistic classes.” These women are curators, professors, psychoanalysts, and singers, not housekeepers or bus drivers. The journalist also points out the generation gap between those who lived through the sexual revolution and younger feminists today.
While the #MeToo hashtag gave women a way in which to express themselves on social media, the movement transformed into #BalanceTonPorc in France and sparked a wave of denunciations that have been condemned by some critics. “In the Anglo-Saxon world, many women feel there’s safety in numbers and solidarity in speaking out,” says Rachel Donadio. However, she notes that women in Europe are scared of being seen as “traitors” or “turncoats” if they bring attention to the behavior of their colleagues or employers. The Atlantic correctly states that no men have been fired for sexual harassment in France, and gives the example of Asia Argento, the actress who was praised in the United States for her allegations against Harvey Weinstein, but ridiculed and criticized in Italy.