It’s telling that Deneuve has become a figurehead of the emerging backlash against #MeToo. Now 74, she has been the embodiment of empowered French feminine sensuality from her breakout performance singing (and smoking while pregnant) in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 1964; through Luis Buñel’s Belle de Jour, in which she plays a bored Parisian housewife who turns a few tricks on the side; to more recent roles dispensing no-nonsense wisdom.
The letter was co-written by Catherine Millet, the author of the best-selling novel The Sexual Life of Catherine M.; Sarah Chiche, a writer and psychoanalyst; Catherine Robbe-Grillet, an actor and writer; Peggy Sastre, a writer and journalist; and Abnousse Shalmanim, a writer and journalist. Its signatories include Elisabeth Lévy, the editor of the conservative magazine Causeur.
Whether it adds a note of discord or depth, the letter is a telling addition to today’s chorus. We’re living through a disorienting moment in which public shaming has eclipsed due process, as my colleague Michelle Cottle has written. Even committed feminists are skittish about expressing dismay at the guilty-until-proven-innocent approach of naming alleged harassers publicly, for fear of seeming lacking in empathy or solidarity. In The New York Times last week, the writer Daphne Merkin struck a similar note as the French feminists, asking “What happened to women’s agency?” It’s hard to have a nuanced debate in an atmosphere that can feel, on social media at least, like one of competitive outrage.
There’s also a generational divide. Older feminists remember the freewheeling days of the sexual lib of Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan, which encouraged women to flirt with their bosses as a form of empowerment. Younger feminists, even if they’ve been sexting since middle school, have a more highly developed sense of workplace boundaries and what constitutes sexual harassment.
In their letter, the French women singled out cases in which #MeToo had clearly overreached, and I agree. They said a suggested law in Sweden that would require any potential partners to agree to their sexual encounter ahead of time, via an app, “verged on the ridiculous.” They also expressed dismay about calls to “censure” an Egon Schiele nude on a poster, or to remove a suggestive Balthus painting from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or for the French national Cinémathèque to cancel a retrospective of films by Roman Polanski, as some French feminists had called for. (It wasn’t cancelled.)
For a while, it seemed the fallout from Weinsteingate could mark a shift in France. It was a French journalist who started the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc, or “rat out your pig,” calling on women to speak out about abuse, and for months, the #MeToo movement has opened an important national conversation here about sexual harassment. (Although the #MeToo debate has also oddly morphed into a debate about Islam here, after several women accused the Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan of rape and sexual abuse; he has denied the allegations.) Mostly, French tabloids like Paris Match have been dining out on #MeToo, a chance to talk about sexual harassment in ways they might never have done if the controversy hadn’t begun elsewhere. Le Monde has been investigating sexual harassment in various French institutions, most notably uncovering grim patterns in the youth groups of the French Communist party.