External Affairs

Cherchez La Femme: The Women of France Are Not What Catherine Deneuve Imagines They Are

Harassment of women and worse are as rampant in France as in many other countries, despite romantic notions of the ideal French woman.

Women hold placards during a gathering against gender-based and sexual violence in Marseille, France, October 29, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier

Women hold placards during a gathering against gender-based and sexual violence in Marseille, France, October 29, 2017. Credit: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier

French women have elicited both envy and admiration for decades. A quick look at any mainstream library’s self-help section will make this obvious: you’ll stumble across books praising French women’s “seductive style”, promising to let you in on their secret ways to avoid getting fat or disgracefully old, and describing their methods to raise impossibly well-behaved children. These books are based on some romantic vision of the French woman that cinema and the cosmetic industry largely feed the world. Their premises are misguided if not purposely deceitful.

French women are quite obviously a diverse lot and the perfect Parisienne is as elusive and fictional a character as the sati savitri is in India. Very recently, an open letter denouncing the #MeToo movement and its local avatar, #BalanceTonPorc (literally Denounce Your Pig) was published by Le Monde, the largest French daily newspaper. It was signed by 100 women, including iconic actress Catherine Deneuve, and sent shock waves among many, if not actually most, French women, revealing the deep divide that exists in the country on feminism. In the following days, many artistes, lawyers, journalists and academics challenged this open letter. Rebuttals were published, some signed by hundreds of women. A feminist blog exposing Deneuve’s views is now online and over 1,000 women have signed its manifesto.

Three months after the #MeToo movement spread from the US to the rest of the world and gave scores of women the strength and support necessary to denounce acts of sexual abuse, the French actress Deneuve who, like Brigitte Bardot epitomises French style, and her co-signatories defended the “freedom of pester” in a text that silenced the plight of thousands of victims of sexual harassment. The word they used is “importuner”, which is a euphemism reminiscent of the Indian English “eve-teasing”.


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In the days that followed, the media published several counter open letters signed by many more women than the original one and exposing the hypocrisy of Deneuve and her friends. French women, especially millennials, have come to view the macho “gauloiserie” and “gallanterie” precisely as what they are: ways to use culture as an excuse to oppress women. There is nothing, for them, to be salvaged in this cultural travesty. In France, each year 225,000 women between 18 and 75 are victims of physical and/or sexual abuse at the hands of their partner. Only 19% of them actually file a police complaint. One out of seven women says she’s been a victim of sexual abuse at least once during her lifetime. And according to official statistics, every three days, a woman is killed in France by her husband or boyfriend. That Deneuve can sign a text that seeks to silence all the victims does not only show a lack of female solidarity, it reveals structural divides of class, race and income. Many rich white bourgeois women like her, although thankfully not all, fail to show empathy for the every day experience of the average woman in the country, an experience only made worse if her skin is coloured and her means reduced.

Yes, French women on the whole have better living conditions than women in many developed parts of the world thanks to their mobilisation in favour of abortion and extended maternity leave, for example. But to think that French women enjoy even the most trivial forms of harassment in a context where they otherwise have equal rights would be deeply misguided. Men are paid on average 24% more than women for the same job, for instance. The champions of French cultural exceptionalism, who defend the right of men to “pester” women, systematically fail to mention such structural inequalities that enable a culture of male domination. Besides, women’s rights are as fragile in France as anywhere else in the world. Former Prime Minister François Fillon, who was poised to become president but whose campaign was finally derailed by a huge corruption scandal, publicly claimed that, as a devout Catholic, he was personally against abortion rights.

Actress Catherine Deneuve. Credit: Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Actress Catherine Deneuve. Credit: Reuters/Stephane Mahe

It is not only society and an outdated vision of French culture that are to blame. Political institutions also bear a great responsibility in maintaining inequalities. The world has been swooning over Emmanuel Macron ever since his election as president in May 2017. He has strived to project himself as a young, energetic leader who will bring about much-needed reforms to the country, and also as a feminist. However, he downgraded the cabinet rank of the person in charge of women in his government from minister to state secretary.

The law also discriminates against women according to their marital status and sexual orientation. While the rest of the world still entertains fantasies of the “liberated” French woman, one has to point out that only heterosexual and married women actually benefit from certain rights. For example, single women and lesbians are legally barred from access to assisted reproductive technologies. During his campaign, Macron had vowed to change this and make all women equal by law regardless of their sexual orientation or spousal status. Instead of making good on his promise, his government decided that the country should debate this issue during the “Etats généraux de la bioéthique“, a kind of bioethics debates that started on the January 18 and that is scheduled to end on the July 7. Debates and meetings around IVF, surrogacy and assisted suicide will be held all over the country. Nobody knows if the law will change once the debates are over. Meanwhile, the most reactionary forces have threatened to take to the streets again and a very homophobic discourse is rearing its head five years after French society was torn apart by the debate around marriage equality. All polls reveal that French society is largely in favour of letting lesbians and single women access assisted reproductive technologies but the government, eager to please the most conservative and generally Catholic fringe of the population, decided to open up equality for debate instead of simply enforcing it. In doing so, France is at odds with its image as a super progressive, women-friendly country.

The media bears a tremendous responsibility for this state of affairs. That Le Monde decided to publish the Deneuve open letter shocked many because, under the pretence of defending a plurality of opinions, it legitimised the most reactionary and dangerous forms of opinion. Women are not well-represented inside newsrooms, on TV shows or in newspaper columns. Assisted reproductive technologies are mostly debated, for instance, without any lesbian or for that matter any women present. Men go on air to discuss female bodies and their rights, a situation that the AJL, the French association of LGBTI journalists, has been exposing ever since it was founded in 2013. In a context where ordinary French women are being routinely invisibilised in the media, it is utterly disappointing and outraging that the rest of the world can believe that Deneuve stands for French women or French culture.

Ingrid Therwath is a journalist based in France. She is also one of the signatories of the blog manifesto and a member of the AJL.

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