In October, during an interview on the public radio channel France Inter, prominent French feminist Élisabeth Badinter echoed a phrase that has dominated the national debate over #MeToo: “Yes, but.” Yes, the movement has empowered women to speak out, but “it didn’t only have advantages,” Badinter, 74, told host Léa Salamé, 38. “There’s a feeling of suspicion that’s taking hold between boys and girls,” she warned. “Boys are afraid, and girls are too, and the consequences will be long term.” Boys are afraid? Salamé asked skeptically. Oh yes, Badinter rebuked: “If that’s not your impression, it means you don’t know about young people today.”
France’s #MeToo—here, #BalanceTonPorc, or Expose Your Pig—has unfolded a bit differently than its American counterpart. When, in January, the famed actress Catherine Deneuve and 100 other prominent women signed a letter denouncing the mobilization as an affront to French gallantry and seduction, many feminists here and abroad gawked. The signatories, who defend a man’s “right to bother,” are certainly in the minority in France. But the letter’s tone has underscored a debate about the movement’s very legitimacy, and, as Badinter, who did not sign the letter, cautioned, its potential to alienate men.
Inherent to this doubt is the sentiment that French feminism has become vulnerable to external forces. Most notorious among the threats is American “puritanism”—considered an affront to French “libertinism,” a culture of indulgent sensual pleasures.
This isn’t the first time France has balked at what it sees as a flawed US approach to sex and gender relations, especially in the context of allegations of sexual violence. Denunciations of and skepticism toward #MeToo hark back to 2011, when Nafissatou Diallo, a 32-year-old maid at the Sofitel New York Hotel, accused then–IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn, known as DSK, of sexual assault. Strauss-Kahn was indicted the following day. Semen found on Diallo’s shirt matched a DNA sample he had submitted, and he pleaded not guilty. The incident, immediately dubbed the “DSK affair,” sparked outrage in France. At the time, Gilles Savary, a Socialist deputy in the European Parliament, wrote: “To tell the truth, everybody knows that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a libertine.… In Puritan America, impregnated with rigorous Protestantism, they tolerate infinitely better the sins of money than the pleasures of the flesh.”
Given that attitude, it’s not surprising #MeToo has left less of a trace in France than in supposedly “moralizing” America and that many insist the movement is incompatible with French culture. In The New York Times, essayist Agnès Poirier described an emergent “new French feminism” as an “American import” that has embraced a “rather alien brand of anti-men paranoia.” The misogyny that defined Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination certainly showed the movement’s limits in the United States, but shouldn’t overshadow its concrete achievements: Over 240 men and counting have been publicly accused of sexual assault, and once-celebrated figures in the media and the movie industry have faced legal and professional consequences (plump payouts notwithstanding).
In France, that number hovers around 30. Accusations against media behemoths Frédéric Haziza and Éric Monier seemed to fall on deaf ears. Haziza, who was accused of sexual misconduct, was suspended for one month—when he returned, his accuser left her job. Monier, who had been accused of assault or harassment by 13 women, was subsequently promoted to the head of television station TF1. A rape allegation against government minister Gérald Darmanin—which was followed by a separate accusation of sexual harassment—was dropped, and the minister threatened to sue for slander; a 2008 rape accusation against Macron’s first environment minister Nicolas Hulot, which resurfaced in February, similarly fizzled. In the movie industry, accusations of rape and sexual assault against the famed Luc Besson and Gérard Depardieu faded from the news cycle. The list goes on.
In that context, much coverage of the movement has centered on the troubled fate of flirtation and masculinity; the magazine Le Parisien featured Depardieu on its cover, labeling him an “extravagant” man who knows “no taboos.” “Newspapers keep publishing articles asking, Can we still flirt? Journalists on Twitter call for men’s testimonies on seduction and dating in the #MeToo era,” Anaïs Leleux, a feminist activist, told me incredulously. “As if a woman denouncing harassment or violence, or speaking out on #MeToo in general, has anything to do with flirtation.”
That focus has made #MeToo seem less about holding abusers to account and more about the movement’s encroachment on France’s prided rules of attraction (and, in particular, what that means for men). A case in point: Sandra Muller, the New York–based French journalist who created the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc, was named a “silence breaker” by Time magazine; the man she accused, Éric Brion, is suing her for defamation, and has received regular attention in French media, where he laments how his life has fallen apart.
The idea that #MeToo is an American import that victimizes women who, by virtue of French values, are already “liberated,” is the same sort of notion that pervades many of the country’s most heated debates—notably those around Islam and the headscarf some Muslim women wear. The historian Joan Scott, professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study, has written extensively on the interplay between French universalism, feminism, and Islamophobia. “The vision of seduction as a characteristic of French national identity is also used in Islamophobic campaigns,” Scott said in an interview with French daily Libération. “They allege that Muslims can’t be ‘assimilated’ into French society because of their repressed sexualities, in contrast with the ‘sexual freedom’ that Deneuve and her ‘sisters’ made themselves the champions of.”
Anaïs Bourdet, a feminist who, in 2012, founded the website Paye Ta Shnek, which catalogues testimonies of street harassment, agrees. “In France, we only see one way to be free—‘emancipation’ has become a moral order,” she told me. In that “dominant view,” an empowered woman must be one who is “visible, potentially sexy, who doesn’t cover herself, and who isn’t modest.” Bourdet, 33, sees a generational divide: “When I talk about the headscarf with my mom, it’s clear that her feminist upbringing refuses to see different interpretations of freedom.”
Many of the women who have questioned #MeToo’s role in French society, or suggested it has gone too far, are also some of the most vocal critics of Islam. This includes Badinter, who has called for a “boycott” of “Islamic fashion” brands, which she considers a threat to French secularism and a harbinger of Islamism’s rise. Women who helped shape second-wave feminism—the mobilizations of the 1960s and ’70s that centered on sexual liberation and saw religion as a major driver of women’s repression—have struggled to reckon with their successors, who focus on inclusion and feminism’s plurality. In France, the establishment has been particularly hostile to intersectional feminists, particularly those who identify as Muslim.
Sarah Zouak, the 28-year-old founder of Lallab, an organization that seeks to draw attention to the experiences of French Muslim women, is one of those feminists who have clashed with the establishment. “In France, we always try to say that sexism and harassment come from elsewhere—from Arabs, from blacks, from the banlieues,” she told me, referring to the suburbs, often home to large immigrant populations. That bias has been apparent in the response to accusations of sexual harassment, she argued: National and media outrage has fixated on the Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, whom multiple women have accused of rape; in other cases, similar acts have either faded from the national conversation or been chalked up to the exaggerated policing of flirtation.
That obstinacy—rooted in a rigid vision of sexual freedom attached to national identity—can in part explain what the investigative-news site Médiapart called the “French delay on #MeToo,” in a series of articles devoted to the first anniversary of the Harvey Weinstein exposé. And the rift isn’t exclusively generational. Consider 27-year-old journalist Eugénie Bastié, something of a rising star in the conservative media. In a recent interview about her new book, which lambasts the movement for scapegoating men, she insisted that “a hand on a butt-cheek never killed anyone.”
Bastié likely made that comment knowing it would be controversial and create buzz, and it did; it was reported by numerous media almost instantly. And, although she is on the right, her argument reflects a more fundamental conservatism—on feminism, gender, or anything relating to identity—that complicates France’s progressive self-image across the political spectrum.
That stubborn, nationalistic vision has stripped the conversations about #MeToo of nuance and halted their progress. Reflecting on the past year, French historian Laure Murat called France the “country of non-debate,” in which, rather than challenging dogma, the media and intellectuals “revive the war of the sexes, clichés about ‘hysteric feminists’ and ‘poor men’” in order to avoid “the heart of the problem”—a culture of impunity toward sexual harassment and assault.
In an interview with the public-radio channel France Culture, Murat, who has taught at UCLA for over a decade, called gallantry “à la française” a “smokescreen” that blocks any critical reflection on relations between men and women. The argument that #MeToo has misinterpreted flirtation—inherently fun and anodyne, especially when done by French men—as harassment has served as a rhetorically powerful decoy. But its troubling endurance in the face of #MeToo might be what it takes to galvanize resistance. The current rejection of #MeToo might parrot the nauseating defense of DSK’s “libertine” tendencies, but it has perhaps given urgency to the feminists—most, but not all, from the younger generation—who see right through it.
“For us, that ‘French seduction’ isn’t seduction at all: In fact, it’s violence, it’s rape,” Zouak said. “But it’s very French, each time, to disregard that and say—‘Oh, that’s just France!’ It’s time to insist: That’s a disgusting way to defend French culture.”