Since #MeToo, France’s notoriously liberal attitudes to sex and sexual power are under the microscope as never before
‘What was acceptable, even admirable, 20 years ago is now considered beyond the pale.’ Illustration: Michelle Thompson/The Observer
A few years ago I spent the weekend in a château deep in the rural Auvergne region of central France. Even more memorable than the crumbling property with its hectares of forest and decaying outbuildings, were the two elderly men to whom we were introduced when we arrived, who were enjoying an afternoon gin and tonic in the library. One – the father of my friend Guillaume – was Guillaume’s mother’s longtime lover until her recent death. The other was his mother’s husband and the owner of the château where Guillaume grew up. The two men had remained on excellent terms for 40 years.
The setup had all the ingredients of one of those lyrical French films starring Gérard Depardieu, replete with lavish interiors and rhapsodic landscapes looping through the changing seasons. It also ticked every box for lascivious British assumptions about the French, among whom infidelity, at least among the rich, powerful and famous, has long been something of a hallmark of a specifically French insouciance.
François Mitterrand famously maintained an extra- marital relationship with Anne Pingeot, which began when she was 20 and he was 47 and continued throughout his presidency. They had a daughter, with whom Pingeot lived in a grand apartment paid for by the state. She remained his mistress until his death in 1996. Indeed, during the entire 20th century, apparently only one French president – Georges Pompidou – was known to have been faithful to his wife. How the other wives felt about this remains undocumented; the stereotype of the Parisian woman is that she is as discreet as she is chic.
Since #MeToo, French attitudes towards consent and power within relationships both personal and professional have come under the microscope as never before. What was acceptable, even admirable, 20 years ago is now considered beyond the pale. The publication in January of Le Consentement, a memoir by Vanessa Springora, detailing her relationship with the prizewinning writer Gabriel Matzneff when she was 14 and he was in his 50s, was like a bomb going off in the country. Gallimard, which published Matzneff’s diaries, hastily announced that it was halting sales of his books and he was stripped of the state-funded grant he had been receiving.
Matzneff had been hiding in plain sight. For decades he has proudly detailed in his published diaries and essays the underage girls and boys he was having sex with when they should have been doing double maths, and openly talked about his sexual predilections on television chat shows. And he didn’t come out of a vacuum. French literature features a sizable library of perversity – from the Marquis de Sade to André Gide, and Robert Desnos to Georges Bataille, not to mention Serge Gainsbourg’s hit Lemon Incest, recorded with his 12-year-old daughter Charlotte in 1984 – inscribed in which is the notion of the male artistic genius who, like the aristocrat of the Ancien Régime, remains above the drab moral conventions that govern the lower orders.
There’s a touch of that in the persistent defence by French artists and intellectuals of Roman Polanski, who has lived in France and continued to make films since he fled the US in 1978 while awaiting sentencing for the rape of a 13-year-old girl. His most recent film, An Officer and a Spy, was one of the biggest critical and box office hits in France in late 2019. In the midst of the Weinstein trial, it has so far failed to find a distributor in the US or the UK.
The Matzneff scandal brought back to the surface a decades-long debate about consent that, it turns out, remains an unexpectedly controversial subject in France. In 2017, a man, 22, was found not guilty of the rape of an 11-year-old girl by a judge who considered the child to have given her consent. Yet in spite of the nationwide horror at this and other similar cases, the following year the National Assembly voted against bringing statutory rape on to the books (though confusingly it did vote to make it illegal to have sex with a child under 15).
It’s a paradox I’ve struggled to understand: how is it that a country that has produced some of the most influential feminist thinkers of the 20th century has a legal system that appears to remain in thrall to the male sexual prerogative? I married a Frenchman, have lived here for 15 years, and have French children. In 2018, I became a French citizen. I suppose that makes me feel like I should understand this all a bit better, but it turns out that though I speak French, I don’t think in French, and I’m going to need some help if I want to begin to decode the myths and realities of the sexy French brand that the puritanical British supposedly admire and even envy.
I’m in for the occasional rude surprise. One friend, whose job involves working to increase gender parity in the arts, tells me, in the wake of Matzneff, that she is against the concept of statutory rape. “We’re turning into a culture that’s idiotically prudish.” She, in common with a lot of French women I’ve spoken to, dislikes the impact of #MeToo for what they consider to be a chilling effect on culture and society. In a recent article in the magazine L’Obs, historian and psychoanalyst Élisabeth Roudinesco accused “neo-liberal feminist puritans” of seeking to purge French culture of every work of art that might offend public sensibilities.
Yet – surprise, surprise – there is a bleak fallout to this culture. A 2018 documentary, Sexe sans Consentement (Sex Without Consent), features women speaking to the camera about an attack by a male friend. The film ventures into an area that is rarely explored in France: the “grey zone” where sex is forced, without “physical violence, threat or surprise” (three of the four conditions for rape in French law, the fourth being “coercion”). All of the women describe an inability to say no or to fight, how they internalised the sense that they were in some way responsible for what was happening to them.
The film also features young men describing their own take on consent: “I find it even more motivating – even more exciting! – when a girl says no,” says one with a cheerful grin. The strategy of interweaving these young men’s testimonies with those of the women provides a stark illustration of the failure of education to undo the twin ideals of male conquest and female acquiescence.
These ideals are central to the quintessentially French notion of “seduction”, dating back to the 17th century and predicated on a dynamic in which the man is the séducteur, and the woman’s role is to consent. This, in turn, confers some “power” on the woman – to spurn the man, to flaunt his love, or to exact favours or payment in return for her attentions.
“Gallantry” is another value inherited from the pre- revolutionary aristocracy that I have been told is inherent in French social dynamics. Karine Peyrsaubes, 50, a local councillor in St-Germain-en-Laye, a market town west of Paris, says: “I absolutely believe in equality. But I love what we call ‘la galanterie à la française’. I’m not a feminist. Men and women aren’t the same – and we don’t want to be treated as if we are.”
Her words echo the notorious letter opposing #MeToo, published in 2018 and signed by 100 women (including Catherine Deneuve), defending the right of men to harass women in the name of a tradition of phallocentric seduction. Feeling a little tweedy, I ask another woman in her 50s to decipher the notion of “gallantry” for me. “It’s a code of behaviour – holding doors open, pulling her chair out, kissing her hand. A way of recognising a certain fragility, something delicate about a woman. Nothing more than that. I like it. It’s a way of making you feel like a bit of a princess, that you deserve this attention.”
I can’t help but feel that flattering half the population into feeling like compliant princesses, flattening a woman’s value into a highly codified physical attractiveness, are potent tools of subjugation. Cultivating that allure has historically been the only way for a woman to stand up to institutional powerlessness – still a problem in a country that novelist Lucy Wadham once called “one of the last great patriarchies”. That vertiginous heel might hobble you, but it can also skewer a man where it hurts.
It’s salutary to listen to young women talk about their experiences of “gallantry” on the streets of Paris. “Men hit on me in the street at an absolute minimum once a day,” says Anita Farrès, 18, a first-year law student. “If you ignore them they immediately begin insulting you, calling you a bitch or a filthy slut. It can be quite frightening. I always carry a little tear gas spray with me when I go out. It’s like there’s an epidemic of male incivility in France.”
Farrès links this to a wider culture that still insists on bringing girls and boys up according to different values. “My father’s family is Catholic, really strict. There’s a strong idea that women are supposed to know their place,” she says.
The past year or two has seen an incredible liberation for women
Fellow student Lylia Djellal, 19, points to the fact that sex education in school is “all about the mechanics of reproduction, nothing on the psychological, emotional aspect. We have lots of lessons about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, all that, but things to do with consent, respect… not at all.” Farrès adds that “there’s so much social pressure. If a boy hasn’t had sex by a certain age, he’s a loser. If a girl’s done it too young, she’s a slut.”
Those judgments are just as likely to come from women as from men, in Farrès’s experience. “There’s not enough solidarity between women. They’re full of judgment, there’s a lot of jealousy.” Djellal agrees: “Maybe we have to learn to be kind and watch out for each other first, before we expect men to be kind to us.” I’m moved. I can only tell them I agree. I wonder if the jealousy and judgment among women they mention has any link with a history of relaxed attitudes to sexual fidelity, in which notions of loyalty and friendship must be stretched to breaking point. Even when a friendship weathers the tension, as with my friend’s parents in the Auvergne, I suspect that in reality such relationships owe their existence to an era when many women didn’t work and thus could not afford to leave their husbands, and divorce was extremely frowned upon in a country still largely bound by Catholic values.
Anne Karila-Danziger, 53, a Parisian family lawyer, is adamant there is no more acceptance of adultery in France than anywhere else. “There’s certainly more tolerance of people’s private lives, but I don’t see it as a tolerance of adultery, and I certainly don’t have the sense it reflects the way ordinary people live. I deal with divorce, so it’s true I see a specific demographic, but from what I see, French people are just as unhappy when their spouses cheat on them as people from any other country.”
I ask if partouze (group sex) clubs – such as the ones disgraced former IMF head Dominique Strauss Kahn was known to frequent – are ever cited in the cases she deals with. “I think it came up in one dossier I dealt with, and we still talk about it because we thought it was so funny.”
While divorce rates have risen over the decades, domestic violence has reached epidemic proportions. Every three days, a woman is killed by her partner in France, one of the highest rates in Europe. Euriel Fierling, 44, a high school philosophy teacher in a working-class suburb east of Paris, grew up with parents who were both far-left activists. “That was the world I was brought up in, the radical feminist wave of the 1970s. But 50 years later, the rates of domestic violence, femicide and rape are sky high. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the feminist movement of the 1970s was highly intellectual. It didn’t change anything in wider French society. Here we are, in 2020, talking about femicide. We never made it visible enough. How is that possible?
“In fact,” continues Fierling, “I think the May ’68 revolution, the sexual liberation of the 1970s, was more about men’s right to sexual freedom than that of women. Since #MeToo, it has been all about women’s sexual emancipation. Now, as well as violence against women, everyone is talking about female pleasure. I have never heard that before. I mean, from this September, for the first time, school textbooks will have 3D representations of the clitoris.”
Karila-Danziger agrees that #MeToo signalled a radical change in France, though she cites different reasons. “I really think there’s an incredible liberation for women that’s been going on over the past two or three years. It’s extremely complicated, we’re seeing a real change in our understanding of love, respect, relationships. One phenomenon that is very specific to France is the law that grants equal custody of children to both parents after divorce. The fact that the father is now expected to be equally involved in the everyday aspects of bringing up his children is huge progress.”
Writer Emilie Notéris, 40, who describes herself as a “queer text worker”, is excited by the emergence of the voices of women and racial and sexual minorities disturbing the institutional fabric. “There’s a desire for representation that matches the reality of people’s lived experiences.”
Fierling is similarly upbeat, impressed by the recent resurgence of feminism among her students. “For the whole time I was teaching, up until #MeToo, my students didn’t think feminism concerned them at all. I tried to tell them it was an illusion to think the struggle was over, but until the #MeToo movement they weren’t receptive. In the past couple of years, it’s completely changed. Young women are extremely sensitive now, they explode at any sign of sexism. It’s become a dominant ideology. Now all my students, boys as well as girls, call themselves feminists.”
Last week the entire committee of the Césars (the French Oscars) resigned in the wake of a letter signed by 400 actors, directors and others from the French film industry, condemning the organisation as “a structure where the majority of members don’t see themselves in the choices made in their name, and which in no way represents the diversity of French cinema”. This has been widely understood to be a specific reference to the 12 nominations received by Polanski’s An Officer and a Spy – every eligible category except best actress and best supporting actress. Feminist groups, furious at Polanski’s decades-old get-out-of-jail-free card, have been picketing cinemas showing the film; even President Macron’s equality minister, Marlène Sciappa, expressed her dismay at the idea of a man convicted of rape getting a standing ovation at the ceremony. There have been the usual grumbles about “puritanical feminists”, but overall there’s been a surprising consensus. In the words of culture minister Franck Reister, in the post #MeToo era, even in France, “genius should be no guarantee of immunity”.