France's most revered actress, Catherine Deneuve, declared Tuesday that men should be "free to hit on" women, condemning a new "puritanism" she claimed has been sparked by sexual harassment scandals.
She was one of around 100 French women writers, performers and academics who wrote an open letter in Le Monde deploring the wave of "denunciations" that has followed claims that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted and harassed women over decades.
They branded it a "witch hunt" that they claim threatens sexual freedom. The letter attacked feminist social media campaigns like #MeToo and its French equivalent #BalanceTonPorc (Call out your pig) for unleashing this "puritanical ... wave of purification."
The women say the Weinstein scandal "sparked a legitimate awakening," but that the allegations have gone too far.
The letter reads:
In fact, #MeToo has led to a campaign, in the press and on social media, of public accusations and indictments against individuals who, without being given a chance to respond or defend themselves, are put in the exact same category as sex offenders. This summary justice has already had its victims: men who’ve been disciplined in the workplace, forced to resign, and so on, when their only crime was to touch a woman’s knee, try to steal a kiss, talk about "intimate" things during a work meal, or send sexually charged messages to women who did not return their interest.
Paris-based journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, a political commentator who covers French affairs, was one of the signers of the letter.
"Rape is a crime, sexual harassment is a crime," Moutet said. "But at the same time, there was a feeling that what started as something that was very good as opening up ... has become a kind of social media dogpile in which anybody can hashtag and then name somebody, shame them and you become guilty until proven guilty and it's become laziness, but lives and livelihoods are being destroyed that way."
Since the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo campaign, men in politics and media, especially, have lost their jobs. The letter points to other efforts to censor material:
The purging wave seems to know no bounds. The poster of an Egon Schiele nude is censored; calls are made for the removal of a Balthus painting from a museum on grounds that it’s an apology for pedophilia; unable to distinguish between the man and his work, Cinémathèque Française is told not to hold a Roman Polanski retrospective and another for Jean-Claude Brisseau is blocked.
"It starts when people named and shamed and they can't answer back," Moutet said. "And you have people who bring up the things that may have happened 30 years ago, 20 years ago. And if you cannot answer and then your life is immediately blighted to some extent."
Also from the letter:
Above all, we are aware that the human being is not a monolith: A woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being a man’s sexual object, without being a "whore" or a vile accomplice of the patriarchy. She can make sure that her wages are equal to a man’s but not feel forever traumatized by a man who rubs himself against her in the subway, even if that is regarded as an offense. She can even consider this act as the expression of a great sexual deprivation, or even as a non-event.
But the backlash to the open letter was swift, especially on social media.
"They crossed a line here," said Rim Sarah Alouane, a French writer who is among the women in France who have sharply criticized the open letter in Le Monde.
"I was extremely disappointed by the conditions and the people who signed this letter, especially Catherine Deneuve, who is a well-known feminist," Alouane said. "She actually contributed to the French feminist movement. [But] this is actually part of the problem normalizing this kind of behavior which is sexual harassment. I'm sorry, but there is no such thing as the right of a man to hit on a woman."
"We are having such a hard time listening to women, believing them, and this is not helping," Alouane said. "The American #MeToo movement triggered something in France. Women feel empowered now. In France, it was very rare to see women actually giving names of the people who harass them or the company where they work."
The French hashtag #BalanceTonPorc asked women to name their accusers, a step further than the US #MeToo.
"If you cannot make the difference between seduction, flirtation and harassment then you have a problem," Alouane said.
Moutet disagrees and said women can reject harassment.
"If someone is harassing me, but are being crass about it, I will just tell them to go away," Moutet said. "It seems that nobody can ask anything from anyone anymore again."
Alouane said that's a misinterpretation of what women speaking out against sexual harassment are talking about.
"The #MeToo movement was as not about prohibiting men to stop flirting with women, telling them they are pretty," Alouane said. "That's not the point. The problem is when there is pressure. If we start normalizing this kind of behavior, I'm sorry this is dangerous. And women will keep being blamed for something they are not responsible [for]."