French feminists debate the ‘hand on the bum’ in the wake of #MeToo

An open letter in a French newspaper, co-signed by actress Catherine Deneuve, has sparked a fierce cross-generational row among French feminists over whether men should be publicly outed and condemned on Twitter for a quick grope on the Metro.

Feminists accused Deneuve and 99 other prominent French writers, celebrities and intellectuals of giving sexual harassers a free pass by calling for a ???right to pester women’ in the letter published in Le Monde on Tuesday.

But one of the 100 who signed the letter said she was sticking to her guns, adding that young people in the #MeToo movement have a “very sad and very na??ve” idea of sexuality, and that there is a grey zone between harassment and seduction.

The letter denounced the #MeToo movement as a new Puritanism that left women “traumatised forever by a grope on the subway”.

A “freedom to bother” women was an indispensable part of sexual freedom – women were sufficiently clear-sighted to know the difference between a clumsy pass and sexual assault, they said.

The letter was reported around the world, hitting a nerve as claims of sexual assault and harassment by famous and powerful men continue to roll in.

A group of 30 French feminists struck back on Wednesday, signing another letter accusing Deneuve and her colleagues of condoning “the hand on the ass” from French men.

Activist Caroline De Haas wrote the letter which was published on the Radio France website Franceinfo.

She said the Le Monde group were like “an embarrassing colleague or tiring uncle who does not understand what is happening”.

“As soon as equality advances, even half a millimetre, good souls immediately alert us to the fact that we risk going too far,” the letter said. “In France, every day, hundreds of thousands of women are victims of harassment.

“Accepting insults against women means allowing violence??? the (Le Monde) signatories deliberately confuse a relationship of seduction, based on respect and pleasure, with one of violence.

“Many of them are often quick to denounce sexism when it comes from men in working class neighbourhoods. But a hand on the ass from men in their own milieu, according to them, is just exercising a ???right to bother’ women.”

Ms De Haas said her first reaction when reading the Le Monde letter had been sadness.

“Some people don’t want the old world, the ancient world to go away,” she said. “But if you say sexual aggression or harassment is not bad, or not a big issue, the message you send to all victims is that it’s not very important??? and you send a message to the guy that it’s not a problem.”

There is no “line” between seduction and harassment, she said, and it was wrong to even put them on the same spectrum.

“I don’t think it’s a difference of degree, it is not the same thing,” she said. “Harassment is not a seduction, it’s something else. It’s violence.”

She said she felt it was important to respond to the Le Monde letter because it was being discussed in homes and workplaces across the country, and it was important to write the alternative argument, to expose and explain its stereotypes.

But she said she did not believe the Le Monde letter would have a lasting impact.

In France, the #MeToo movement is known as #BalanceTonPorc, which translates as “call out your pig”. Coined by journalist Sandra Muller, this tactic encouraged women to name their harassers.

“BalanceTonPorc and MeToo (is) something irreversible,” Ms De Haas said. “This wave is so important, so incredible, so crazy that it’s not possible to come back. We are the majority, we are the silent millions of people in the world.”

The Le Monde article began by insisting it was not condoning rape or sexual violence.

The Harvey Weinstein revelations had led to a “legitimate awareness of sexual violence against women, particularly in the workplace where women men abuse their power”, it said.

But #MeToo had transformed into a “campaign of denunciations” in the press and social networks against men with no opportunity to defend themselves, it said.

One co-signer was Elizabeth Levy, a journalist, essayist and editor of Causeur magazine.

Levy opposed #BalanceTonPorc from the outset, writing in October last year that it was an “ideological gadget” that disguised denunciation as an act of courage.

She said on Wednesday that she did not believe the movement was really about seeking justice.

“Explain how you get justice by forgetting all the rules of justice?” she said.

She was fed up with hearing that “women are victims, that we are living with suffering all the time”, she said. The #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc movement was “transforming every woman into a victim”.

“Most of BalanceTonPorc ??? say ???he grabbed my leg, he touched my ass’,” Ms Levy said. “Ok, it can happen and it’s very bad but do you have to spend the next 10 years thinking of that trauma?

“After 10 years, must the man who said ???you have big tits’ lose his job? Of course pressure at work, or rape or violence is not acceptable. But if someone touched you in the Metro (subway), ok it’s very unpleasant but should I feel humiliated by that? Come on.

“We don’t say a man has a right to do it. But we do say a woman has the right to forget it.”

Levy said she saw a backlash among young women against the feminism of the 60s and 70s, noting that most of the Le Monde signatories were over 50.

“Young women have ideas of sexuality which are very different and depressing, very sad and na??ve,” she said. “They say ???desire must work like this’. But we know how it works??? sometimes there is a grey zone between harassment and seduction.

“Why should I feel humiliated? Why should I feel offended? Why should it be so terrible?”

Another signatory, journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, told the BBC #MeToo had “morphed into a kind of online lynching” or a “minute of hate” that was destroying people’s lives.

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