Inna Shevchenko, the 24-year-old leader of Femen in France and de-facto commander of the movement as a whole, scrolled through her iPhone messages several weeks ago, as we sat at a sidewalk table outside a café in central Paris. She studied one new message and smiled.
“The National Assembly has just invited Femen to come discuss women’s rights in France on September 4!”
Earlier in the afternoon, four of her movement’s topless activists had broken into the French National Assembly and interrupted a session. From the balcony above the deputies, they had raised their fists and chanted their slogan, “Êtes-vous macs ou sénateurs? Êtes-vous macs ou sénateurs?” (Are you pimps or senators?). They were protesting the legislative body’s recent rejection of a law that would have criminalized the clients of prostitutes (and thereby armed sex workers with a means of taking legal action against abusive johns).
The startled deputies on the floor looked up and watched as security guards rushed to restrain the women, who continued chanting their slogan in strident unison as they latched onto the gold-painted balustrade and columns, from which they had to be pried free.
“Voilà! Les Femen!” announced the session’s chairman shortly before the guards dragged the demonstrators away.
The group needed no further introduction. Just as France’s political class was preparing to disband for the summer’s grandes vacances, Shevchenko’s activists—the “shock-troops of feminism,” the “watch-bitches of democracy,” as they style themselves—had sent the country a message: Femen is back.
There was reason to wonder about the fate of the movement. After making headlines in Europe, and especially in France, for months after Shevchenko established its headquarters in Paris in August 2012, Femen largely disappeared from the news last fall. Things were going so badly for the activists that on July 8 their first biographer, the French journalist Galia Ackerman, all but declared the group dead.
When they were in the news, it was for their mounting legal troubles. Earlier this summer, a Paris court ordered Femen fined and evicted “without delay” from the disused suburban utilities property that its members had occupied as squatters since being turned out of their previous residence and headquarters, a dilapidated theater called the Lavoir Moderne Parisien, in November. Notre Dame Cathedral is suing the group for reportedly damaging a bronze bell during a raucous February 2013 protest-celebration there of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation; each activist has already been fined €1,500 (nearly $2,000). During Vladimir Putin’s June visit to Paris, veteran Ukrainian activist Yana Zhdanova—topless, with “KILL PUTIN” scrawled in red on her chest—invaded the famed Grévin wax museum and, wielding a wooden pick, stabbed the Russian leader’s effigy. She faces trial in September and fines totaling almost €50,000. Another Femen militant, the singer Éloïse Bouton, will be tried in October for “sexual exhibitionism” after simulating, topless, an abortion in the landmark 19th-century Church of the Madeleine.
Femen’s repeated targeting of the Catholic Church has prompted condemnation from the French minister of the interior and the mayor of Paris, not to mention lawmakers. Georges Fenech, a deputy of the center-right UMP party, even led an unsuccessful campaign to ban Femen as a “satanic sect” dedicated to “profaning the domain of the sacred and degrading the authority of religion.” And this is just a summary of Femen’s legal troubles in France. Activists in Turkey, for instance, are also facing jail time.
Will fines and prison sentences, or the threat of them, kill off the controversial protest movement, which, if nothing else, has done much (at least in Europe) to counter images of women as sex objects, or as weak and submissive? From almost the beginning of the movement, Femen members have been in and out of courtrooms and police stations for their protests, which have included daring physical attacks on the men—among them, Putin, former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill—whom they regard as enemies of women and of human rights in general.
But this time, they confront their cascading judicial tribulations without the support of their longtime, well-connected media champion, the prominent French journalist Caroline Fourest, who earlier this year published an unflattering memoir about her relationship with Shevchenko and has distanced herself from the movement. Charges of Islamophobia have also dogged the group, souring some in the French media on providing it coverage. A documentary released at the Venice International Film Festival last year exposed the role a male “mastermind” played during the organization's early days in Ukraine in 2008, delegitimizing the feminist group in the eyes of many. To make matters worse, three of the movement’s key Ukrainians, Zhdanova, Sasha Shevchenko (no relation to Inna), and the artist Oksana Shachko, announced in May via the men’s magazine LUI that they were splitting from Femen in France. Zhdanova told me in July, “All Femen women have the same ideology. But we got tired of the petty intrigues and personal rivalries we found among the activists in France. We never had this problem when we were just in Ukraine.”
“Doesn’t the split in your ranks bother you?” I asked Inna Shevchenko.