When the #MeToo movement took hold in France in October 2017, it freed women to come forward with stories of sexual harassment and abuse but had few consequences for their aggressors. In recent months, there has been a new wave of #MeToo accusations, this time with concrete results.
As men in Hollywood and other prominent industries in the United States tumbled from their seats in quick succession after hundreds of women began appearing in 2017 with stories of abuse under the hashtag #MeToo, women in France also began to open up about their own experiences of sexual harassment and violence .
The movement soon had a French counterpart, #BalanceTonPorc (out your pig), a hashtag launched in October 2017 by French journalist Sandra Muller in New York. One month later, thousands of women were in the Place de la République in Paris and other cities protesting against violence against women.
“It was very powerful,” said Léa Bages, a consultant who specializes in gender relations and noted that the protesters were of all ages and from all walks of life.
Unlike in the United States, where a year after the hashtag #MeToo first went viral, more than 200 powerful men had lost their jobs, few men in France were punished for their aggressiveness.
In addition, there was a significant societal return to the movement, the most notable of a group of more than 100 prominent women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, who signed an open letter deploring the destruction of ambiguity and defending men’s right to beat women. For these women and the many who agreed with them, #MeToo was a Puritan overreaction and an insult to French values and the country’s cherished culture of seduction.
Recently, that has changed. In recent weeks, there has been a new bill here that has resulted in powerful men being forced to resign. “I feel like I’m back in the United States three years ago,” said Alice Coffin, a city councilor in Paris and a longtime feminist activist. “It’s striking.”
The #MeToo movement in France began to reach critical mass last year. The marches continued and grew. It was also 2020 that posters condemning sexual abuse and gender-based murder with slogans such as “Silence is not consent” became ubiquitous in Paris. The discussion about gender-based violence was suddenly everywhere and it changed public opinion.
A turning point came in January 2020, when Vanessa Springora published “Consent”, a memoir in which she described her sexual relationship with the author Gabriel Matzneff, which began when she was 14 years old. Matzneff had written openly about his love of sex with children and the literary institution not only protected him but praised him. But now, many of Matzneff’s former supporters turned to him and prosecutors announced they would look for other victims.
The following month, at the César Awards, France’s version of the Oscars, actress Adèle Haenel went out in protest after Roman Polanski, who has been convicted of raping a 13-year-old girl, won the award for best director. In late 2019, Haenel became the first prominent actress to speak out against sexual abuse in the French film industry, accusing director Christophe Ruggia of harassing her six years since she was 12 years old.
The accusations kept coming and the dominoes kept falling. July saw the hashtag #MusicTooFrance and encouraged those affected by sexual or sexist violence in the music industry to speak. In August, a deputy mayor of Paris, Christophe Girard, was pressured to step down because of his long-standing support for Matzneff, although he is still a city councilor. In November 2020, Mediapart published a column by an actress organization condemning sexual violence and rape at Cours Florent, one of France’s most famous actresses.
The power increased even more in 2021. In January this year, Camille Kouchner published “La Familia Grande (The Big Family)”, a book that accused her stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, a well-known political scientist and constitutional expert, of sexually abusing her twin brother when he was 14 .
The book had a number of consequences. Duhamel resigned from all positions, including president of the National Foundation for Political Science, the organization that oversees the prestigious Sciences Po University. Frédéric Mion, the university director, was then forced to resign over his handling of the incest allegations and after many students at schools in the Sciences Po network across France claimed to be victims of sexual abuse at the school and administrators and staff there did little to address deal with their complaints. Elisabeth Guigou, a former justice minister and close friend of Duhamel, left her position as head of a committee on sexual violence against children.
The book also triggered the hashtag #MeTooInceste, which went viral and led to the outing of other famous men. In late January, the Paris prosecutor’s office launched an investigation into French actor Richard Berry after his daughter accused him of incest, the same week that French TV producer Gérard Louvin’s nephew publicly accused him of incest.
#MeTooIncest was quickly followed by #MeTooGay, an eruption of testimonies from gay men who break the silence against the abuse they suffered as young men or as adults.
“Something very important is happening,” Coffin said, noting that Sciences Po is an “emblematic” institution in France.
But why the change?
To begin with, the solidarity in the #MeToo movement 2017 gave the woman the courage to come forward and talk about her experiences. The discussion about sexual violence in public spaces created a climate in women who felt safe and received support to share their stories, says Bages, the consultant. “The importance of social media is great,” she said.
The social media campaigns and marches changed the attitudes of the public, says the French feminist historian Christine Bard. They also helped feminist groups to gather around a single issue, violence against women, much in the way that suffrage became a central issue for feminists a century earlier.
The latest iterations of #MeToo also meant that French women challenged French men and French institutions rather than being an imported movement, says Ursula Le Menn, spokeswoman for the group Dare Feminism. “It challenged our culture,” she said.
And, Coffin noted, now the pressure comes not only from activists but also from the institutions themselves.
That the latest round of #MeToo-ism-involved children also played a role, Le Mann said. When women made allegations of abuse, critics questioned their motives. It’s harder to do with children, said Le Mann. “Children do not want money or fame,” she said.