The French Anti-#MeToo Manifesto: Aren’t These Women Our Allies?
In the first week of January, an open letter denouncing #MeToo as akin to a ‘good old witch-hunt’ was published in the French daily newspaper Le Monde. The letter was signed by one hundred prominent French women, comprised of writers, academics and performers, including the reputable actress Catherine Deneuve. The controversial sentiments put forward in this letter have stirred up fury within the media. Novelist and theatre-maker Van Badham responded with articulate incredulity in The Guardian, and French-Moroccan novelist Leila Slimani wrote an impassioned article for Libération during which she asserted ‘I am not a victim. But millions of women are. It is a fact and not a moral judgment’.
For context, before Me Too was #MeToo, it was an activist group for the support of sexual assault survivors, founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke. When the Weinstein scandal erupted in October last year, thousands of women adopted Burke’s phrase and took to social media where they used #MeToo to signify their own experiences of sexual assault and harassment. The French equivalent of this movement was #BalanceTonPorc, which translates as ‘call out your pig’. For many the movement was shocking, as it revealed just how prolific sexual assault and harassment are worldwide, effecting women of every race, class and industry. Men who previously considered these experiences to be uncommon were faced with the prevalence of invasive and violent sexism, committed not just by those caught in the media storm, but by family members, friends and colleagues.
Recently and perhaps inevitably, the narrative surrounding #MeToo has begun to change. Those who are anti- #MeToo appear to have hoped that the Weinstein scandal would simply blow over, but each week more allegations pour out of the press. It has certainly become an unpleasant and relentless truth, for every day there are further public figures to boycott or condemn. Though #MeToo has provided liberation, relief and solidarity for thousands of women, those who signed the open letter to Le Monde refuse to see the value and necessity of these revelations.
The letter begins with the assertion that ‘#MeToo has lead to a campaign […] of public accusations and indictments against individuals’ who are not ‘being given a chance to respond or defend themselves’. In actual fact, almost every male celebrity who has been accused of sexual misconduct has released a statement in response, attempting to explain, excuse or simply deny their behaviour. Several of these public figures are being investigated by the police, but none of them have been arrested. The prize pig Weinstein himself, who has now racked up nearly 100 separate allegations, is yet to face any legal consequences, and is taking refuge in an expensive sex addiction facility. These men are not defenceless victims, deprived of a chance to speak-yet, that has been the fate of many women, until #MeToo provided a space for their stories.
The letter goes on to state that while ‘rape is a crime’ […] ‘trying to seduce someone, even persistently or clumsily, is not’. The idea that persistence is acceptable suggests that the seducer is entitled to ignore a rebuttal, and interpret any reluctance as coy encouragement! Herein lies the problem: the spectrum of behaviours which constitute sexual harassment and assault is a wide one, but so often the only actions considered worthy of report or condemnation are the explicitly violent or shocking.
According to the letter, many of these aggressors were people ‘whose 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.’ There is not a single action in this list which constitutes acceptable workplace behaviour; the letter even specifies that the affections behind them are one way, and therefore non-consensual. It is abhorrent that the women who signed this letter are effectively encouraging the dismissal of such harassment, on the basis that it is too “mild” and may result in ‘vigilante justice’. Surely the lines are not so blurred? Can a man send an unprovoked sexual text message, or attempt to ‘steal a kiss’ without pausing momentarily to consider the discomfort and distress he may inflict?
These crimes are not only minimised but defended, for the letter claims that ‘the liberty to seduce and importune is essential to sexual freedom.’ The literal definition of ‘importune’ is ‘to harass (someone) persistently to do something’, and amongst its many synonyms are ‘besiege’, ‘implore and ‘persuade’; none of these words imply willing participation. Asking for respect, consent and an awareness of physical boundaries does not threaten or oppress sexual freedom. If perpetrators of assault and harassment world-over abided by these expectations, then sexual freedom would be safer and easier to achieve.
Perhaps the most troubling sentiment of all is expressed in the closing paragraph of the letter, where it is argued that the ‘incidents that can affect a woman’s body do not necessarily affect her dignity […] we are not reducible to our bodies. Our inner freedom is inviolable.’ This idea that we are separate from our physicalities is all at once laughably absurd and deeply concerning. We are not impervious to harassment or assault, and it is archaic to suggest that internal resilience makes us so. In Western society, our bodies often dictate how we are treated, the opportunities we encounter, even the work we do; certainly, we are not entirely ‘reducible’ to our bodies, but our ‘inner freedom’ is inextricably bound up with our external experiences. In her response to this letter, Leila Slimani wrote ‘I do not want only inner freedom. I want the freedom to live outdoors […] in a world that is also a bit mine.’
Why should women settle for freedom only within their own bodies, while men are free to roam safely in the dark, to work without fearing harassment, and to lead without discrimination? For the people who have survived sexual violence and encountered sexual harassment, #MeToo is not just a hashtag but a daily reality. Discrediting these women and the vocalisation of their experiences, whilst continually asserting that you are a feminist, is utterly disgraceful. To the artists, writers and intellectuals who signed this letter, I implore you to turn your scrutiny upon the perpetrators of these crimes, and the societies which enable them. Use your eloquence and artistry to deconstruct the patriarchal narratives which you are party to, and complicit in. After centuries of silence, the women coming forward need solidarity and certitude, not your pedantic scepticism.
 All quotes taken from translation provided by https://www.worldcrunch.com/opinion-analysis/full-translation-of-french-anti-metoo-manifesto-signed-by-catherine-deneuve
Title image by Sarah Rogers, The Daily Beast