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Yes, French women have begun to talk. Growing numbers are reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment to police, thanks in large part to the #MeToo movement. New legislation is addressing sexual harassment, and prominent campaigns are raising funds to support women’s rights groups.

On Friday, the verdict in a high-profile case involving sexual harassment reflected the progress being made. A court dismissed a defamation case filed by Denis Baupin, the former deputy mayor of Paris. Baupin had sued six women who accused him of sexually harassing them over many years, and he had also sued two journalists who reported the harassment. In addition to dismissing the case, the court ordered Baupin to pay $1,120 (U.S. dollars) to each person he had sued.

“This is a huge victory for us,” says Claire Moléon, an attorney who represented one of the women. “It’s a very important step for French law.”

But despite this verdict, France still lags in the global denunciation of sexual and gender-based violence. In the land of gallantry, boorishness prevails through denial, mockery and complaints of false accusation. The women who do speak out often pay a high price for saying what has always been kept quiet.

French culture is filled with historical references to women’s strength—Marianne, the symbol of the nation, represents freedom over oppression; “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 book, is known as a founding treatise of feminism. However, these traditional symbols of empowerment have done little to protect French survivors of sexual harassment and assault.

For a year and a half, the #MeToo movement has shaken the world, but it has mostly come up against a wall in France—a wall shaped by the country’s sexual attitudes and tradition of seduction. French critics of #MeToo suggest it is an attempt to force priggish values on their country.

“The #MeToo movement has been widely seen as a campaign of anti-human denunciation by radical feminists accused of wanting to import the ‘puritanical mores’ of Americans into the country of gallantry,” Sandra Muller said in a 2018 interview. Muller is the journalist who created the hashtag for #BalanceTonPorc (Expose Your Pig), France’s version of #MeToo.

Sheltered behind such fallacious arguments, a number of public personalities who have been denounced by survivors haven’t really worried, let alone been condemned. A governmental minister accused of rape received a standing ovation in Parliament; film producer Luc Besson responded to an accusation of rape by tweeting about the difference between “affection” and “harassment.” (In February, that rape investigation was dismissed due to lack of evidence, but several other women have contacted police and media to report assault and harassment by Besson.)

The French media mocks and trivializes #MeToo—or worse, it supports tolerance and impunity for sexual violence. A TV host and his guests talked on air about their desire to “slap” a feminist activist; the actor Gerard Depardieu, accused of rape and sexual assault, was pictured on a magazine cover and labeled an “extravagant” man not bound by “taboos.” The word “extravagant” was meant to praise Depardieu; its translations into English include “wild” and “outrageous.”

It’s not only a battle of the sexes. Some French women as well as men have spoken out against #MeToo, saying the movement has become an accusation campaign that essentially puts flirting in the same category as rape. Actress Catherine Deneuve was one of 100 women who signed an open letter to that effect in the French newspaper Le Monde in January 2018. The message sent by the letter is unforgettable: Well-known female professionals stood up for men’s power to annoy, or bother, women. Former porn star Brigitte Layaie, who was one of the signatories, went so far as to say “that a woman can [have an orgasm] during a rape.”

The women’s open letter sparked outrage in many international quarters. Critics said the letter wasn’t surprising in France, which the German daily Die Welt called “a country whose culture and literature have been characterized for centuries by libertinage, gallantry and sexual freedom, and which has produced authors like the Marquis de Sade. …”

Speaking Out

Although anti-feminist attitudes remain widespread, positive action is taking place on some fronts. A prime example is a major campaign by the Women’s Foundation, an organization that provides financial and legal support to women’s rights groups. Called #MaintenantOnAgit (Now We Act), the campaign has raised US$280,000 to help with efforts such as fighting sexual harassment at work.

Prominent figures in the entertainment industry have joined the campaign, according to Women’s Foundation President Anne-Cécile Mailfert. “Mobilizing actors and actresses is an effective way to get messages across,” she says. “The fact that known, admired actresses, [with] whom we women identify, take the floor to denounce violence against women has a cathartic effect.”

In another step forward, France passed legislation in August 2018 to reduce sexual harassment on streets and on public transportation. Under that law, men receive immediate fines for actions that make women feel uncomfortable, such as whistling or making degrading comments. Although it can be difficult to catch the perpetrators, more than 300 fines have been issued since the law took effect.

A number of women feel progress also has been made because survivors of sexual assault and harassment are speaking out more loudly and more often.

Participants in the Baupin trial celebrate Friday’s verdict. The sign at right says, “A historic trial.” (Nadya Charvet)

The Baupin lawsuit was notable for the number of women who stepped forward. “We had never seen so many female victims in the same courtroom,” Moléon says. “Political women like Isabelle Attard, my client; others who worked at the Paris City Hall with [Baupin]; journalists who interviewed him. … We also knew that many other victims were not present, because it takes a lot of courage to testify, to accept being in the spotlight.”

Survivors of sexual harassment and sexual violence in earlier decades appreciate this progress. When writer Virginie Lou was raped in a suburb of Paris in the 1990s, her mother advised her to “move on” instead of speaking out—to observe the law of silence that prevailed at the time. But Lou chose the harder path and told her story in court, and she is pleased that survivors today can speak out more readily. “We can only be glad that women’s speech has (now) been released,” she says.

Unfortunately, speaking out doesn’t eliminate rape culture in France. Speaking out doesn’t make rape less devastating to the victim—and doesn’t mean justice will be served. Only 1% of accused rapists currently are convicted, and 70% of rape accusations are dismissed.

Caroline, a Parisian who spoke to this reporter but chose not to use her last name, has seen the effects of France’s rape culture. In 2016 when her daughter was 16, a male friend at a party forced the girl to perform oral sex, on her knees, while he held her by the hair. He admired the abuse in the bathroom mirror. “No doubt [the fantasy that led to this] came from one of the porn films these teens are force-fed with—one that trivializes sexual violence and submission of women,” Caroline says.

A week after the crime, the teenage girl collapsed in class. She was taken to the hospital, where psychiatrists and police interviewed her. “[They were] all kind, but it was a nightmare for my daughter, who felt guilty, who still feels guilty and who did not want to file a complaint,” Caroline says. “I insisted that she do so, so as she could not one day blame me for looking the other way.”

A few weeks ago, Caroline received a letter that said her daughter’s complaint had been dismissed due to lack of sufficient evidence. The mother cried. “I couldn’t tell my daughter,” she says. “I was too ashamed [that I had urged my daughter to speak out and that the system had failed her].”

From Survivor to Victim

Those familiar with the French legal system say the trauma of the aftermath is almost as severe as the initial trauma experienced by survivors of sexual assault and harassment.

That aftermath can take place in the courtroom or in society at large, according to Moléon. “We send women to smash themselves against the jurisdictional wall … [or else the system] turns against them with complaints of false accusation,” she says.

The case of Sandra Muller illustrates the backlash facing those who reveal sexual harassment. In 2017, the creator of #BalanceTonPorc denounced Eric Brion, former director of a television channel, for making these inappropriate comments to her during a television festival: “You have big breasts. You are my type of woman. I’ll make you orgasm all night long.” Brion responded that his advances didn’t constitute sexual harassment and that Muller’s accusations had damaged him personally and professionally. He has since sued Muller for libel.

Survivors of sexual violence also have to painfully relive their assaults, as the French journalist known as Usul pointed out in a video that went viral. He said: “Here is the final injunction of the respectable bourgeois: You’ve been assaulted? Prove it, let the police search your lives, the justice probe your souls, and the doctors feel your flesh.”

Blaming victims perpetuates rape culture in France, according to Muriel Salmona, a psychiatrist and president of the Traumatic Memory and Victimology Association. A 2015 survey conducted by the association included interviews with 1,000 people. One-fourth of them said that if a woman walks in the streets wearing a very short skirt or a shirt that shows cleavage, that provides sufficient grounds to provoke a rape. In addition, “many people still believe that there is no rape if a person gives in when forced [to have sex],” Salmona wrote in an article on the association’s website.

Grassroots Work

On the grassroots level, supporters continue efforts to help survivors of sexual assault and harassment.

Organizations are working to change perspectives and to protect survivors. For instance, Traumatic Memory and Victimology has created a platform for women to report sexual and gender-based violence. The association also conducts research, organizes awareness campaigns and disseminates information to survivors, professionals and the public.

Among other signs of growing awareness: When Muller created #BalanceTonPorc in 2017, thousands of French women revealed they had been sexually harassed or assaulted, and the result was a revolutionary national discussion.

In contrast to the 100 women who signed the petition denouncing #MeToo, several well-known personalities support the movement. During February’s César Award ceremony (Césars are France’s national film awards), Léa Drucker was named best actress for her role as a divorced mother who denounces the violence she has endured. Upon receiving her award, Drucker paid tribute to women who reveal their abuse, and to the organizations and individual feminists working to change the culture. “They are the ones who allowed me to become the woman I am,” Drucker said.

Many young people share Drucker’s appreciation for those who have opposed the status quo.

“Standing up against abusive behavior toward women has resulted in us questioning attitudes and the statements we can [or can’t] accept to [build] a new relationship with men,” says Julie Horta, a 23-year-old philosophy student in Paris.

Horta says the #MeToo movement has radically increased her awareness of violence against women. She hopes that if women are vocal in public debate, it will “give women the security to fight in the private sphere.” Horta, whose course of study focuses on feminism, is currently working on a film about the issue of consent.

Women are making headway, but a radical change is needed in relationships, according to Manon Garcia, a French philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago. “This [change] requires [us] to stop thinking that gender equality concerns only women,” Garcia said in an interview with France Culture, a public radio station.

Some men already are aware of this. “What have we to lose by imagining a [male-female] relationship that would be based on something other than submission and domination?” Usul asks in a video called “How to Seduce After #BalanceTonPorc.”

At a time when events are giving French women new reason to fight, the country has the chance to shed a legacy of sexual harassment and violence. So one is tempted to reply to Usul: We have a lot to lose and so much to gain.

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