Several years ago, a French friend offered me a piece of advice he considered essential for navigating Parisian society. When invited to dinner, it is important to look the hostess up and down and tell her how “ravishing” she is. “You must undress her with your eyes,” he said. Not to do so is rude. From then on — no longer the “cold” Englishman — I was always sure of a warm and flirtatious welcome.
Such behavior might go amiss in the Anglo-Saxon world, but for our Gallic neighbors a bit of playful “galanterie” has long been considered part of the social code. And being a coquette in return is by no means a sign of submission. French feminism and overt femininity have co-existed in harmony.
Now though, the mores are changing. Young women have lost patience with rising sexual violence and enduring machismo — while the “soixante huitard” generation of feminists who took to the barricades in May 1968 in defence of sexual freedom scoff at their granddaughters for demanding nothing more liberating than the right to jobs for life in the civil service. The past week has seen three skirmishes — over an angry book, a crude cartoon and a low-cut dress — in what is becoming a long and colorful struggle between the old and new attitudes to sexuality in France, among men as well as women.
Its roots go back to the so-called “manifesto of the 343 sluts” in 1973, when hundreds of prominent women led by Simone de Beauvoir, author of The Second Sex, the original feminist bible, admitted to having had illegal abortions. Among them was Catherine Deneuve, the actress. Abortion was legalized four years later.
De Beauvoir, who always upheld harmony among the sexes, was famed for her energetic love life — which included affairs with male and female students as well as Jean-Paul Sartre, the existentialist author — and was critical of American feminists for turning relations with men into “permanent war”. The older generation of worldly feminists sustains that view: 100 women — including Deneuve, now in her 70s — attacked the “puritanism” of the #MeToo movement and defended men’s “right to seduce” in a newspaper article three years ago.
But the permanent sex war also continues. Pauline Harmange, 26, a new-generation feminist who has written a “manifesto for misandry” — the hatred of men — found herself at the center of an extraordinary furor last week. Moi les hommes, je les déteste — which roughly translates as I Hate Men — is intended as a slap in the face for the Deneuve generation who “often treat misandry as a joke” yet use “allegations of misandry” to silence “the sometimes violent and always legitimate anger of the oppressed towards their oppressors”.
Its roots go back to the so-called “manifesto of the 343 sluts.” But the permanent sex war continues with Moi les hommes, je les déteste.
This earnest, 80-page tract might have gone unnoticed but for a threat by a male official at the general secretariat for gender equality, a government department set up by President Emmanuel Macron, to prosecute its publishers for incitement to misandry. “I would remind you that inciting hatred over gender is a criminal offence,” he warned. “I request you immediately withdraw this book from your catalogue under threat of criminal prosecution.” Sales promptly soared.
That coincided with the row over a much cruder publication — a cartoon depicting Marion Rousse, 29, a television sports commentator and former racing cyclist, wearing nipple pasties and skimpy lingerie as she interviewed Julian Alaphilippe, her boyfriend and Tour de France cyclist, in bed. “You’ve got to have absolutely no respect for women to reduce six years work as a sports commentator to this level,” Rousse tweeted in horror. Inexplicably, it was published by L’Humanité, the former French communist party newspaper, which “promotes human dignity and the feminist struggle”. L’Humanité apologized and pulled the cartoon from its website.
Thankfully, the comic side of the French turmoil over femininity emerged in the farcical scene at the Musée d’Orsay, a temple of 19th century art featuring numerous female nudes, where guards refused entry to a Rubenesque young woman wearing a low-cut dress with a revealing neckline. She complained later on social media that they had not said what was wrong but insisted she put on a jacket over “that”. “Oh no, that’s not going to be possible, that’s not allowed, that is not acceptable,” she quotes one as saying. “At no time does anyone say my cleavage is a problem, [but] they’re manifestly staring at my breasts, referring to them as ‘that’. I don’t want to put on my jacket as I feel beaten, compelled, I’m ashamed. I feel everyone’s looking at my breasts. All I am is my breasts; all I am is a woman they are sexualising.”
Her experience highlighted the often absurd contradictions of French codes. Women were for long forbidden from wearing trousers in Paris under a law revoked only in 2013. It had seldom been enforced but I remember Michèle Alliot-Marie, a former defense minister, telling me how a guard outside parliament had once informed her she could not enter in trousers. The matter was dropped when she offered to take them off.
Nowhere has the feminist battle raged more fiercely of late than in the Paris Town Hall, a bastion of the left where Christophe Girard, a deputy of Anne Hidalgo, the mayor, attracted bitter controversy over his long-standing support for a celebrated writer who had openly admitted engaging in sex with teenage girls and prepubescent boys. Hidalgo defended Girard for months with a torrent of tweets against Alice Coffin, a young councillor and “new feminist” activist campaigning for his removal, only distancing herself from him when accusations surfaced that he had sexually abused a teenage boy years ago. Girard denied the accusations. He is under investigation by prosecutors.
According to Florence Darel, an actress, the #MeToo campaign and its French equivalent, “balance ton porc”, or “squeal on your pig”, have made little real impact on the long-standing establishment “omerta” that has served to cover up rape and other sexual abuse. “We thought our mothers and grandmothers had done the job,” she told me last week. “They won the right to vote, have abortions and so on. But we have much farther to go.” Deneuve, she claimed, had been “way off target” with her defense of “galanterie” and attack on “Anglo-Saxon” prudery. “If a man puts his hand on your bum in the metro would you call it seduction? Where is the empathy for women who have been traumatised by this sort of thing?”
“All I am is my breasts; all I am is a woman they are sexualising.”
Darel, 52, is one of many women who claimed to have suffered unwanted advances from Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced Hollywood mogul – who was sentenced earlier this year to 23 years in prison for rape and sexual assault. He once invited her to his suite at the Paris Ritz hotel, she said, and made an “indecent” proposal: “He said he found me attractive and suggested that I be his mistress for a few days each year, that way we could continue working together. I told him ‘sorry’, but I had to leave.” While Darel was celebrated in the French press for denouncing Weinstein, it was a different story when she pointed a finger at a French film producer who sued her for defamation. “I was left totally alone in that case, the press didn’t even come to the hearing, which he lost by the way.”
Sandrine Rousseau, a former Green MP and supporter of the new feminists agreed that “we’re not quite there yet” but believed that France had “crossed an important threshold” in the wake of the #MeToo movement. “What used to be seen as naughtiness is now being condemned as sexual harassment,” she said. Rousseau, who runs Parler, an association for victims of sexual violence, has accused Denis Baupin, a prominent Green politician, of pushing her up against a wall, seizing her breast and kissing her in 2016. He was forced to resign as vice-president of the national assembly when several other women came forward complaining of similar abuse. He sued the women for defamation but lost and was forced to pay damages in a hearing in February.
Darel, for her part, looked forward to the day when women could say the same flirtatious things to male hosts when arriving for dinner and without it raising any eyebrows. “Then we’ll be equal.” I look forward to it.