Why I'm standing up for my right to be 'pestered'
Let's not say adieu to la difference. French women can stand up for themselves, writes Anne-Elisabeth Moutet
There comes a moment when you're standing in the eye of the Twitterstorm and the virtue-signalling starts to get to you. And that's when you need Catherine Deneuve at your side.
There's nothing like the grande dame of French films joining four of your friends to write and sign, with 95 other Frenchwomen, an open letter supporting our inalienable right to galanterie, to the complexities of a grown-up sex life, and to not seeing all men as guilty until proven so.
When one of the four initial authors, my friend the French-Iranian writer and director Abnousse Shalmani, asked me if I wanted to sign this text, I jumped at the chance.
The letter, published in Le Monde, expressed many of the misgivings I'd started to have watching the scorched earth devastation that was following the #MeToo Weinstein scandal.
It had felt liberating at first: now everyone was a ferret-faced little political commissar.
I had applauded Ronan Farrow's superb New Yorker magazine report on the 13 women whose lives and careers had been blighted by Weinstein. I was unsurprised when investigations revealed that other Hollywood moguls had updated the casting couch tradition. In his inimitable style, Donald "grab-them-by-the-p***y" Trump had given voice to the crass fantasies of a thousand men in positions of power.
At the time of Dominique Strauss-Kahn's arrest in New York, I was among the first Frenchwomen to write denouncing French politicians' usual assumptions that any comely female journalist was for personal consumption.
But then came the hashtags and campaigns. The #MeToos and the #BalanceTonPorcs ("Rat on your pig"). In between black-dress selfies at the Golden Globes, naming and shaming became a social media indulgence.
Forget investigative reporting: the People's Tribunal of Twitter equated wolfwhistles with rape, pestering lads on the pull with serial abusers.
Decades after Simone de Beauvoir and Christiane Rochefort, after the 1960s' sexual revolution, many Frenchwomen find the picture of us emerging from this whole debacle deeply depressing.
Suddenly we come across as shrinking violets, unable to shake off a bloke trying it on in a bar, traumatised for life the minute someone attempts frottage in a crowded train carriage. (I find that saying in a calm but VERY LOUD voice, "Will you stop touching my ass!" makes enough commuters laugh that the culprit slinks off at the next stop.)
Suddenly, centuries of the unique French charm of men-women camaraderie and badinage are in danger of being erased, and replaced by puritanism a l'Americaine.
We detest the DSK types, but we also ridicule vice president Pence, who would never have dinner with a woman other than his wife and has said that while working, he will never close the door of any office where he's alone with a woman. That way lie Victorian women-only carriages and the Saudi insistence on guardianship.
Human relationships are a complicated skein of trial and error. In America, they tend to live in a black-and-white world, a binary universe of ones and zeroes.
That's perfect to build fine computers. It does not account for human frailty. Yes, even the frailty of some of the men named in recent scandals.
Our letter starts by stating clearly that rape is a crime; that sexual harassment, specifically in the workplace, is a crime. In fact, one of the four initial authors was raped a few years back. Another spent the first seven years of her life in the Iranian theocracy, swathed in black drapes.
We are no strangers to the oppression of women by men. Precisely because of this, we are wary of those who would decree a "right" way to behave, love, have sex.
Should we Parisians fill in consent forms before one party can ask the other to dinner, as is threatened by a government minister in Sweden?
Should we Frenchwomen start to pretend that all power games in bed are guilty, and that a strong, successful woman cannot enjoy a role reversal in play?
One of the letter signatories is Catherine Millet, the gallery owner and art expert, whose book The Sexual Life of Catherine M only scandalised people outside France. We don't want to have to say adieu to la difference.