Gavin Mortimer

The French women who stood up to the #MeToo movement

The French women who stood up to the #MeToo movement
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Why the big fuss about the 100 eminent Frenchwomen, including Catherine Deneuve, who have criticised the #Metoo movement as a puritan backlash?

Their viewpoint, expressed in a letter to Le Monde, is little different to the one expressed by their president in November, when Emmanuel Macron spoke out against sexual violence and harassment but warned against a culture of 'denunciation' where 'each relationship between men and women is suspicious.'

In reminding France that they are 'not a puritan society,' Mr. Macron was tacitly drawing comparisons with the Anglo-Saxon world, long seen by the French (and other Latin countries) as prudish in sexual relations.

Macron was subsequently criticised by some French feminists, such as Caroline De Haas, who tweeted that the president 'hasn’t understood what is going on in the country.' Macron's supporters would demur, however, pointing to a raft of measures that his government is planning to introduce to eradicate the scourge of sexual violence that in 2016 cost 123 Frenchwomen their lives.

Macron, like the hundred women who wrote to Le Monde on Tuesday, appears to have a better understanding of what constitutes a real danger to women than some French feminists. De Haas, for example, was in the headlines last May when it was revealed that one district in northern Paris had become a virtual no-go zone for women because of the presence of hundreds of young male migrants on the streets. De Haas took exception to those women who blamed the migrants, instead suggesting that the widening of the pavements would solve the problem.

De Haas has been one of the first to respond to the letter in Le Monde, accusing the signatories of 'deliberately mixing seduction, based on respect and pleasure, with violence', and there have been other stinging rebukes from politicians and activists.

What will have particularly struck a nerve with the #Metoo movement is the letter's reference to the 'religious extremists' who, as the signatories point out, are enemies of sexual freedom because they believe women to be inferior.

The Islamists who peddle this view in France have gone unchallenged for many years by the same feminists who are now at the forefront of the #Metoo movement. Yet these are the same people who see nothing wrong in the burka, the burkini or the fact that as a television report revealed in 2016 women are not welcome in some French cafes.

In the wake of the 2016 burkini row, a weekly French magazine interviewed several prominent Francophone Muslim women to canvass their views on the incongruous alliance between Islamists and feminists. The Algerian-born essayist Djemila Benhabib accused the latter of lending 'respectability and legitimacy' to the Islamists by claiming the burka was acceptable 'in the name of individual liberty'. Benhabib told these feminists that in the future 'I put you on the same level as the Islamists. I make no distinction, because you’re knowingly colluding with them'.

The noted French feminist and philosopher Élisabeth Badinter did not put her name to the letter sent to Le Monde but even before the emergence of the #Metoo movement she was warning against the radicalisation of feminism. 'This idea that women are the perpetual victims doesn't, in my opinion, advance the feminist cause or the relations between the sexes,' she said in an interview last June. 'We must do all that we can so that we don't reach a situation where the sexes are enemies, operating in absolute distrust.'

Macron is right, France is not a puritan society, and nor is it perfect. There remains a seam of sexism that needs to be eradicated but it won't be done with a hashtag that whips up hysteria and cultivates a hatred of men.