PARIS—She set thousands of hearts aflutter as a beautiful and bored housewife-turned-prostitute in the 1967 film Belle de Jour, but today iconic French actress Catherine Deneuve had pulses racing and blood pressure rising for an entirely different reason.
In an open letter published in the French daily Le Monde on Tuesday, Deneuve and some 100 other prominent female entertainers, writers, and academics railed against the #MeToo social media campaign and its French equivalent #Balancetonporc (Expose the pig) accusing them of unleashing a “puritanical... wave of purification” and likening the protests to a “witch-hunt.”
“Rape is a crime but insistent or awkward flirting is not, nor is gallantry a macho aggression,” the letter read. “Men have been punished summarily, forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone's knee or try to steal a kiss.”
Not only should men be “free to hit on women,” Deneuve and others argue, but the man-hating mentality wrought by the #MeToo movement poses a threat to sexual liberty.
“Instead of helping women, this frenzy to send these [male chauvinist] ‘pigs’ to the abattoir actually helps the enemies of sexual liberty—religious extremists and the worst sort of reactionaries,” the signatories said.
“Men, for their part, are called on to embrace their guilt and rack their brains for ‘inappropriate behavior’ that they engaged in 10, 20 or 30 years earlier, and for which they must now repent. These public confessions, and the foray into the private sphere of self-proclaimed prosecutors, have led to a climate of totalitarian society.”
For anyone who has followed the Weinstein saga, and the subsequent #MeToo phenomenon, as well as the myriad lurid stories of sexual abuse and harassment in Hollywood and elsewhere over the past few months, Deneuve and her creative cohorts seem almost comically out of touch. After all, the allegations against Weinstein and other entertainment and media heavyweights don’t simply pertain to sex, but also amount to exploitation and a gross abuse of power.
Moreover, the term “witch-hunt” seems all the more puzzling. As the novelist and feminist Van Badham points out in The Guardian, in Puritan New England, home to the infamous Salem Witch Trials, powerful local governments and religious agencies largely targeted vulnerable and disadvantaged women. By contrast, the Weinstein saga has embodied the flip side of Salem with the victims denouncing the perpetrators—powerful, predatory men who had spent years, even decades using their power and status as a means of sexual coercion. Harvey Weinstein and his ilk, vulnerable and disadvantaged? Really?
The most striking aspect of the letter, however, goes beyond its provocative posturing and questionable metaphors. It’s a last gasp of sorts—a cry from the old guard (Deneuve, widely seen as a French cultural icon, is 73) that fears that movements like #MeToo and #Balancetonporc are a threat to both liberty (sexual and otherwise) and to a long tradition of seduction in France.
French sexual politics have always differed from those in the U.S., and flirtation and an appreciation for “the art of seduction” are deeply embedded in the culture. For instance, the same crude workplace sexual remark that could get you fired in America might only raise a few eyebrows here. The general attitude toward sexual overtures has traditionally been more lax, and enthusiastic, even aggressive flirtation is an expected and accepted part of daily life—in the subway, at the doctor’s office, and even at the local market. It’s not uncommon to receive unsolicited compliments on the streets or to receive a wink from the local fishmonger. It’s a common part of daily interaction and not taken seriously. Indeed, my own reaction to these kinds of daily advances is usually laughter rather than indignity.
However, as in the U.S., perspectives in France are changing, and Weinstein-esque antics are less likely to be tolerated now than in generations past. The question is where to draw the line. That is, in a country where quotidian flirtation is the norm and seduction (and the freedom to seduce) are as valued as liberté, égalité et fraternité, will cracking down on inappropriate and illegal behavior likewise smother harmless teasing between the sexes? When does a playful remark on the street become genuine harassment?
The country is in the midst of addressing these issues, indicating that attitudes are shifting and even the famed French tolerance for sexual shenanigans has its limits.
In October, the country’s gender equality minister, Marlène Schiappa, presented proposals for a new law aimed at cracking down on sexual violence and harassment, including on-the-spot fines for catcalling and “lecherous behavior” in public. But what exactly defines “lecherous behavior” and what comprises “street harassment?” Groping? Asking someone for a date? Telling a passing stranger she is pretty? This has yet to be determined, and it’s easy to imagine Deneuve and the letter’s other signatories growing uneasy over what they perceive to be yet another “totalitarian” encroachment on not just sexual freedom, but on French culture itself.
The protests against the recent Roman Polanski retrospective also suggest that the “anything goes” mentality in Deneuve’s day is waning. Like many of French cinema luminaries, Deneuve has spoken out in support of Polanski, who was convicted of drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in the ’70s. In March of last year she told French television that she didn’t understand the movement by French feminists to ban Polanski from heading up the country’s César Awards and always found the word “rape” to describe his crime “excessive,” provoking a rash of media coverage and criticism. Indeed, Tuesday’s letter in Le Monde lists the anger over the Polanski retrospective among the examples of the country’s “puritanical” mentality that Deneuve and others denounced.
The Le Monde letter has been met with shock and outrage in the country, further suggesting a clash between Deneuve’s brand of feminism (if you could call it that) and modern feminist perspectives in France. Shortly after the letter was published, well-known feminist Caroline de Haas and a group of several dozen activists took to France Info, where they left a blistering response.
“Sexual violence is not ‘intensified flirting,’” they wrote. “One means treating the other as your equal, respecting their desires, whatever they may be. The other is treating them as an object at your disposal, paying no attention to their own desires, or their consent.”
“The signatories are deliberately mixing seduction, based on respect and pleasure, with violence,” they added.
French politician Ségolène Royal also chimed in on Twitter, expressing her disappointment that “our great Catherine Deneuve is part of this appalling letter.”
Seduction may still be celebrated here, but sexual violence is not. Society can maintain a culture of flirtation and relaxed sexuality, but still condemn predatory sexual behavior. It need not be either or. Like her most famous screen role, Belle de Jour, it seems as though Deneuve’s attitudes are part of France’s past, not its present.