NICE, France—The outraged text I got from my friend, the actress Tatum O’Neal, in the United States last week after the French daily Le Monde published a screed by 100 French women—including 74-year-old actress Catherine Deneuve—attacking the #MeToo movement as puritanical, totalitarian and anti-men summed up many reactions both in France and abroad.
“Will you please ask Catherine Deneuve and those older French women what in the world they’re thinking?” O’Neal asked. “Why are they doing this?”
At first the official backlash out of Paris was fierce, notably by a group of mostly younger militant French feminists led by Caroline de Haas, 37, who published their own statement furiously repudiating Deneuve’s squad just one day later on the site of the France Info radio station.
De Haas denied some claims that Deneuve’s letter represents a pushback to the American-led #MeToo movement and trendy millennial sexual mores.
“We reacted right away because we had to,” de Haas told The Daily Beast.
“On one hand it’s not surprising,” she said. “Whenever a movement takes even a small step forward, there are always those who say it’s gone to an extreme. Still, the fact that this happened in France feels so shameful to us. It’s an international shame.”
In Nice, the half-French, half-American co-founder of MeToo France, called Deneuve “disgraceful.” “She is ridiculously out of touch with what average women endure in France and around the world,” said Carole R. Davis. "This shows a callous lack of knowledge of the pressing issues we face and she exhibits such an empathy-challenged position, I can only think that she might be suffering from dementia.”
Mostly forgotten in France and elsewhere last week was the fact that Deneuve was once considered a feminist icon in France for her signature on another public statement, the so-called “Manifesto of the 343 Sluts” published in 1971.
The manifesto appeared in the weekly news magazine Le Nouvel Observateur and carried much more of a risk for Deneuve and the 342 other female signatories, including Simone de Beauvoir, than anything contained in Le Monde last week. Each admitted to having an abortion at the time when it was illegal and they could have been criminally prosecuted. The manifesto got the “sluts” diss when French commentators scorned the signatories, asking, “Who would have gotten these ‘sluts’ pregnant?”
Deneuve, at 28 and at the peak of her career, might have been blacklisted permanently. Instead, 331 doctors signed a declaration in support of the manifesto two years later. In 1975, abortion was decriminalized in France.
Apples and oranges, according to de Haas when asked about it by The Daily Beast. “Deneuve has not been a supporter of feminism in recent years,” she said. “Look at how she supported [Roman] Polanski. You can be pro-abortion yet against feminism—at least here.”
So why did the first big backlash to #MeToo, which some are casting as a clash between hip, young third-wave feminists and allegedly out-of-touch, needlessly provocative, possibly senile second-wave feminists, happen in France?
“Because the movement was especially strong here,” de Haas said, referring to the #balancetonporc (“call out your pig”) hashtag that quickly took on a life of its own. “It resonated to the point where we got what you read in Le Monde.”
But it’s also… France. Many Americans still cling to antiquated clichés like French women don’t get fat, that they are effortlessly chic, they raise perfect children. Maybe. But a bigger truism is the French in general delight in saying no, taking a jaundiced view of current popular opinion (see also: their opposition to the Iraq War) and reveling in ballsy cantankerousness.
In the U.S., Daphne Merkin has been one of the few prominent writers or activists to come out against #MeToo, and her New York Times piece was a relatively gentle takedown, complaining about how the movement was encouraging a new “victimology paradigm” for young women. Merkin was roasted online and no manifestoes have sprung up defending her position since.
But France can’t resist protesting and last week, the respected if iconoclastic writer, art critic and professional libertine Catherine Millet, one of Deneuve’s co-signatories, fired back at shamers on both sides of the Atlantic. She said on French radio that “some women will not be content” until “you have to sign a contract with a lawyer before you can have sex.”
“We are not idiots,” Millet said. “Rape and sexual violence should be criminalized, but we cannot ban the least little gesture, dirty word or inappropriate behavior. It’s crazy, we’re stopping flirting now.”
Millet, 69, whose bestselling 2002 memoir The Sexual Life of Catherine M detailed how she “loves to suck men’s cocks” and enjoyed taking it in every orifice during orgies involving up to 150 people, had previously and reliably provoked the nation last month when she said she “really regretted not having been raped because I could have shown that you get over it.”
Within 72 hours, it seemed women of a certain age in the country where they’re usually more respected than anywhere else were trying to school their younger sisters with questionable results.
In a jaw-dropping exchange Thursday between Caroline de Haas and former porn star-turned-radio host Brigitte La Haie, 62, over #MeToo, La Haie claimed that “some women have orgasms when they are raped.” La Haie was promptly decried even by Deneuve’s group and she apologized, sort of, by claiming her remarks were taken out of context. (La Haie famously took part in a porn flick which involved a rape scene by two truck drivers in 1978.)
But the French frying of #MeToo has led to a blurring of what Deneuve and others call the “black and white” views of Americans into more of what she calls the “grey zone” preferred by the French, who resist the rigidity of the zealot.
Indeed, in the aftermath of the Le Monde manifesto, Samantha Geimer, who was 13 when she says Roman Polanski raped her and has long said she doesn’t want him prosecuted, tweeted her support of Deneuve’s letter. Articles popped up everywhere from the U.K. to Canada praising Deneuve and the others.
“This current projection of helpless females is, far from empowering, setting us back a half-century,” wrote Rosie DiManno in the Toronto Star. "We are not delicate creatures. We are not snowflakes. We are not so manifestly the weaker sex that we need our fathers and our husbands and our brothers and The New York Times to rescue us from satyrs and villains and bullies.”
Tatum O’Neal, however, wasn’t having it. “Maybe Catherine Deneuve has forgotten what it’s like or she doesn’t have a daughter who’s 26. But I have Emily and if (sexual harassment) is not happening to her it’s happening to someone else. Deneuve and the others ought to let the younger women speak their truth and work this out.”