PARIS—An open letter signed by movie star Catherine Deneuve and dozens of other French women about men being unfairly targeted by sexual misconduct allegations has prompted a backlash in the French press and on social media.

In the letter, published in Le Monde newspaper, Deneuve and about 100 actresses, writers, scholars and artists argued that the “legitimate protest against sexual violence” stemming from the Harvey Weinstein scandal has gone too far and threatens hard-won sexual freedoms. They said men should be free to hit on women and advocated against “puritanism.”

On Wednesday, French women’s rights activists denounced the letter as “a bit like the awkward work colleague or annoying uncle who doesn’t understand what’s happening.”

The activists, including feminist Caroline De Haas, wrote on the Franceinfotv website that Deneuve and other signatories are making sexual violence appear “normal.”

Marlene Schiappa, France’s junior minister for women’s rights, told France Culture radio: “There are in this open letter some things that are deeply offensive and false.”

The letter signed by Deneuve said some women may see being rubbed against by a man in the metro as an expression of “sexual deprivation” or a “non-event.”

Schiappa countered that “it’s dangerous to say such things,” and insisted that such an act constituted sexual assault punishable with up to 3 years in prison and a fine of 75,000 euros ($90,100).

Writer Abnousse Shalmani, one of those who signed the open letter, said she was surprised by the “extremely violent reactions” it prompted.

“I consider myself to be a grown up. I am capable of receiving a sexual proposition and even more capable of saying no”, she said on Europe 1 radio.

Italian filmmaker and actress Asia Argento, one of the dozens of women who have alleged Weinstein sexually harassed or assaulted them, called the letter “deplorable” in a tweet.

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