Women like Deneuve, Bardot and Lahaie are attached to the French myth of freedom. After all, they’ve risen to the top by playing by the patriarchy's rulesby Lucy Wadham / February 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
“Rape is a crime, but…” So begins a letter sent to Le Monde, signed by over 100 women from the highest spheres of French society—authors, artists, performers and academics—deploring the wave of “denunciations” triggered by France’s version of the #MeToo movement, #BalanceTonPorc (call out your pig).
The letter goes on to affirm that a new British and American-style puritanism has been unleashed on France by the sexual harassment scandals. Men, they wrote, must be “free to importune” women and should not be punished for “stealing a kiss.”
Among the signatories are actress Catherine Deneuve, author Catherine Millet and radio host Brigitte Lahaie. A week later, Brigitte Bardot told Paris Match she too agreed with the letter. She condemned her fellow actresses as ‘teases’ (allumeuses) who provoke male producers in order to get parts, asserting that, “in the vast majority of cases [the actresses] are hypocritical, ridiculous, and uninteresting.”
Bardot’s views on the matter are—as a long-standing supporter of the Front National—unsurprisingly reactionary. It is the tone that raises questions: why such scorn for the victim?
This backlash against a movement, widely perceived in France as long overdue, has shocked and baffled social commentators in Britain and America, who have blamed old age for the signatories’ perceived collusion with the patriarchy.
I would argue that age is not the thing. There are plenty of French women of their generation speaking out against the climate of impunity that has long enabled men in positions of power—men like former IMF-chief, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose Presidential hopes were dashed by a hotel chamber-maid’s allegations of abuse —to get away with routine sexual harassment, even assault.
For me, the clue both to Bardot’s hostility and to the motivations of the authors of the Le Monde letter can be found not in the incompatible values of their generation, but in France’s enduringly hierarchical society—and, in particular, these women’s status within it.
Read Dawn Foster on why ending harassment means changing the nature of work
Take Brigitte Lahaie, another signatory who displayed an equally shocking insensitivity when invited on to French television with militant feminist Caroline de Haas.
Lahaie, a former porn actress whose radio talk-show focusses on matters of sex and love, began by denouncing this new chapter in feminism as a campaign of “hatred for men and sexuality.” Echoing the letter’s positioning of men as victims of their libido, and those who rub up against women in the Metro as “sexually impoverished,” Lahaie announced—with the authority of an expert—that women are more “sexually powerful” than men.
For her, it seems, when it comes to sex someone has to be the one with the power. The idea of a sexual partnership in which the power is shared is not only implausible; it holds no interest for her. Why? Because her own sexual power is what has won her status in French society. Lahaie’s sex, like Bardot’s, has been her fortune.
In the same interview, Lahaie went on to point out that “some women orgasm during rape, you know.” Again, this staggering lack of empathy for the victims of rape stems not from any generational divide but from her sense of entitlement, albeit an unconscious one.
Lahaie, like Bardot and indeed Deneuve, has risen above the lowly status of the ordinary woman to become a national treasure. She cannot, and will not, empathise with the victim.
Equality is modern France’s founding myth. All men are born free and equal in rights, begins the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. And yet few societies are more fixated with status than France. This can be explained, in part, by the French perception of freedom—so very different from that of Anglo-Saxon cultures.
Stealing, roughly, from Isaiah Berlin’s distinction, the French are attached to the ideal of “positive liberty” as opposed to “negative liberty,” which is the absence of constraints or interference championed by Anglo Saxon cultures. Positive liberty is much more ambitious. It’s the freedom of self-mastery and self-determination, the freedom to be in control of one’s destiny.
Women like Deneuve, Bardot and Lahaie are attached to this idea of freedom. They’ve risen to the very top of the patriarchy by playing by its rules and so have a vested interest in them. They’re not concerned with the lowly struggles of women fighting for the mere right not to be molested.
There are other strange arguments being deployed against #BalanceTonPorc, including the view of routine sexual harassment as a cultural exception worth defending. Often, behind such arguments lies the fear of mediocrity.
Another signatory of the Le Monde letter is Catherine Millet, author of the explicit and bestselling autobiography, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. Few are more terrified of the mediocre and unremarkable than Millet. Invited last December onto France Culture, a highbrow radio station, Millet contending that a woman who is raped doesn’t lose her “integrity” because her consciousness remains “intact.”
Millet went on to say that she regretted never having been raped “because I could bear witness to the fact that you get over a rape.” This extraordinary detachment from the reality of a victim’s suffering stems partly, again, from Millet’s rarefied position in French society. As a hallowed “intellectual,” the 69-year-old has come to feel herself above humanity.
Similar is the hostility that the writer Christine Angot displayed towards Sandrine Rousseau, a Green Party politician with whom she was recently invited on French TV to discuss sexual violence. Angot is the controversial author of the novel Incest, that recounts, in harrowing detail, a sexual relationship with her father.
Rousseau was there to discuss her book, Parler (speak out), which denounces the culture of silence that prevented her from pressing charges against her Green Party colleague, Denis Baupin who sexually assaulted her back in the 90s.
The judge ruled that there were grounds for a criminal enquiry, but Baupin was acquitted due to the statute of limitations. In France, Rousseau pointed out, only 10 per cent of women who claim to have been raped press charges and only 1 per cent of those who commit acts of sexual aggression are brought to justice.
As Rousseau talked about the need to break the silence, Christine Angot became visibly uncomfortable. When the politician argued for structures to be put in place for complaints and for people “to be trained to receive the accounts of these victims,” Angot lost her temper: “Stop the blabla!” she cried. “You can’t deal with the question of sexual aggression in a political party!”
“Then what should you do?” pleaded Rousseau.
“You deal with it!”
Why does Angot the writer want Rousseau the politician to keep silent? A clue is in her reaction to the idea that she herself is a victim of sexual violence: “I am not part of a brochette of victims!” she protested.
Angot, who in 2013 received a medal from the Order of Arts and Letters, wants to keep her status as a writer. She does not want to swap it for that of victim. Like Deneuve, Millet and Lahaie, she denounces victimhood, which “dishonours women who have been dishonoured.”
Revealingly, Angot went on that night to argue against feminising the word writer from auteur to auteure. Why? Because she has no wish for the cultural signifier of ‘writer’ to be assimilated with that of ordinary womanhood. Rousseau argues for the need to shine a light on sexual violence so that society might evolve.
But Angot fears this idea. If the subject is out in the open it is lost to her as literary material. By sublimating her traumatic experiences, rather than speaking out about them, she has earned her place at the top of France’s pecking order, and become powerful and free. Tant pis to the legions of women who are not.