Different Shades of Feminism: Me Too in the French Press

In March, after Grand Central Publishing announced that it had dropped its contract with Woody Allen for his memoir, Apropos of Nothing, Manuel Carcassonne promptly made the media rounds in France. Carcassonne is the managing director of Éditions Stock, which had purchased the rights to the French edition of the book, and he underlined his intention to continue with publication as planned. “The situation in France is not the American one,” he told Le Point.

Carcassonne released Allen’s memoir in June as Soit dit en passant, to mixed reviews. Left-leaning and moderate outlets panned Allen’s hypersexual descriptions of actresses as well as his vehement attacks on Mia Farrow’s mothering. Others argued that the book’s literary merits should be judged apart from the controversies of Allen’s person. 

In the US, Arcade Publishing picked up publication rights to the memoir. Jeannette Seaver, the acquiring editor, is French—a fact that French conservative outlets immediately seized on. “She was interviewed right away by Le Point and Le Figaro, and I was really annoyed that she was being used by these old white men to confirm their theory that feminism has gone crazy in the US,” says Clémentine Goldszal, a journalist who profiled Seaver for Le Monde.

There’s a common narrative in American media that the French attachment to sexual and artistic liberties has made the country less receptive to feminist progressive thought. When, in 2018, more than a hundred French women signed a letter defending a man’s “right to bother,” American readers were left assured that the US was leading the way for the Me Too movement. The rare French cinema stars who have publicly voiced support of Me Too, including Isabelle Adjani and Adèle Haenel, go largely unnoticed stateside.

Anglo-American gender politics has undeniably influenced younger generations of French women, who are more likely to cite Beyoncé and Emma Watson as their feminist icons instead of French politicians such as Caroline De Haas.

Meanwhile, in French media, Americans are typically presented as puritanical and susceptible to hysterical groupthink, incapable of appreciating the higher pleasures of sex or art, and eager to air personal grievances for capitalist gain. “I think Americans might need scandals to talk about certain issues,” Valentine Faure, a journalist who writes about feminism, told me in an email.

But Anglo-American gender politics has undeniably influenced younger generations of French women, who are more likely to cite Beyoncé and Emma Watson as their feminist icons instead of French politicians such as Caroline De Haas. Many in France believe that coverage of sexual abuse must be taken outside the country to be taken seriously. “There is a pattern of victims in France speaking to Anglo-Saxon media because they seem to trust that their story will be represented fairly,” says Laura Cappelle, a sociologist and cultural critic in Paris who contributes regularly to the New York Times.

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Indeed, Léa Seydoux, an actor, took her complaints against Harvey Weinstein and director Abdellatif Kechiche to The Guardian and the Daily Beast, respectively. Earlier this year, after Vanessa Springora accused Gabriel Matzneff, a prominent writer, of pedophilic abuse in her memoir Consent, another one of his victims came forward to the New York Times, saying that she had been trying to do the same for almost two decades but had been silenced by the French culture industry. When Mediapart, a French news organization, first reported on accusations against directors Luc Besson and Christophe Ruggia, the Times picked up both stories. 

In its treatment of Me Too cases, the French press has put a particular emphasis on economic inequality. Sometimes the way class dominates discussions of social justice (as opposed to identity difference) can undermine the women who come forward. Soon after Seydoux spoke about her experience working with Kechiche, he responded by calling her “a spoiled kid” from “an untouchable caste.” Both social media and the press took the bait, excoriating her for her wealth and privilege. “Because I come from a bourgeois family, I did not have the right to express myself,” Seydoux told France Inter last year. 

Nevertheless, many French women feel that they have gained unprecedented attention in the way their voices are heard. This spring, the country experienced something of a resurgent Me Too movement in response to Roman Polanski’s César win for best director in February. (The Césars are the French equivalent of the Oscars.) Haenel furiously marched out of the awards ceremony, calling it “shameful.” Virginie Despentes, a writer, published an enraged polemic in which she declared, “From now on, we will get up and get the hell out.”

Iris Brey, a critic, saw the Césars as a tipping point that led many women to believe they could no longer keep their feminist thoughts unspoken. “It was maybe more radical in France than in the States because we’ve been waiting for so long,” Brey says.

 

WHEN I ASK Lénaïg Bredoux—a journalist who has been called the Ronan Farrow of France for her reports on sexual abuse at Mediapart—how Woody Allen is examined in the French press, she says, “He’s not. The accusations against him are completely invisible, or perhaps recounted as anecdote.… It makes the whole scandal sound like folklore.”

Polanski’s case is often invoked to defend Allen, because unlike Polanski, Allen has never been convicted of abuse. (Polanski pleaded guilty to rape of a minor in 1977, while Allen was not criminally charged following Dylan Farrow’s allegations of sexual abuse in 1992.) Maureen Orth’s 1992 Vanity Fair article on Allen and Farrow’s 2018 interview with CBS have not always carried over to the French context, making the controversy sometimes seem far away. Most French people aren’t informed about his daughter’s allegations against him. Many of the journalists I interviewed did not think they could determine whether Allen was guilty on the basis of the available evidence.

This also reflects an important legal reality. The Me Too movement has been widely applauded in the US for allowing women to publicly voice experiences of harassment and assault and to demand justice outside of a legal framework that turns their experiences into cases of “he said, she said.” In France, however, accusations that cannot be backed up by a court decision are often criticized for undermining the judiciary ideal of presumption of innocence.

‘I think the French media are even more conservative than society itself,’ Lénaïg Bredoux says.

French media, too, has to contend with a lower legal threshold for successful defamation claims against women who have made public allegations. In the first year of Me Too, journalists at Mediapart, Le Monde, the French channel of BuzzFeed, and Libération, among others, gave attention to stories detailing allegations of “violences sexuelles.” Since then, most outlets have backed away for fear of retribution in court. “We’re blocked today at the level of the justice system,” says Aude Lorriaux, chief reporter on gender inequality at 20 Minutes and cofounder of Prenons la une, an association for women in media. “This falls outside of journalism’s prerogative.”

According to Léa Forestier, a business and media lawyer, the problem is less the law than its implementation. “French law reflects our time, and at first glance resembles the legal systems in many other countries,” she says. “It is its institutional application by judges in cases of sexual abuse that is lacking.”  

Bredoux, the Mediapart journalist, confirms that institutions remain a bastion of traditional values. “I think the French media are even more conservative than society itself,” she says. “Given the number of emails and phone calls we receive, people have changed more. They want to come forward. It’s just that the discourse of the French elite remains completely out of touch.”

If a celebrity were to be accused of sexual harassment today on French territory, Bredoux and her colleagues at Mediapart would be the first to break the story. The outlet is an exception to the entre-soi of France’s artistic, political, and media elites; it does not receive the government subventions standard in the French media, and is editorially aligned with the radical left. It takes after an anglophone model of investigative journalism: an independent entity capable of calling those in power to account.

Mediapart’s investigations have generated change. In 2016, Bredoux reported on allegations of sexual assault against Denis Baupin, a Green Party politician, and Baupin subsequently resigned. Articles on Haenel’s allegations of abuse and the Académie des César’s “familial” inner workings prompted the organization’s members to collectively step down; it has since made a commitment to gender parity.

 

“IN FRANCE, THE SAYING GOES that two groups have a strong following on Twitter: fascists and feminists,” says Lorriaux. For the American reader, the comparison might be astonishing. It aligns with a fear of dictatorship by the mob—a mob that has been imagined since the French Revolution as emotional, frenzied, and feminine.

When Woody Allen’s name is invoked in France, it is almost always with the aim of defending French artistic liberties and condemning American cancel culture. “For young people—twenty, thirty years old who have nothing but the internet—what they will hear about Woody Allen will cut them off from masterpieces,” Jean-Marc Parisis, a writer, said last year on France Culture, a public radio channel.

Parisis’s comments come from the premise that state-funded culture brings the French populace together in the shared purpose of higher ideals, a purpose that is often articulated in contrast to American individualism and materialism. When feminists question the standing of such cultural products—such as Polanski’s most recent film, which received more than six million euros from at least four public funders—they are blamed for advocating a Netflix consumer model over one that values great culture.

“France is very attached to the artistic side of film,” says Pauline Mallet, who served on the jury at this year’s Critics’ Week at Cannes. “There’s a stereotype of American cinema as Disney and big blockbusters.” She notes that coverage of Harvey Weinstein in France put forward a capitalist critique, focusing on his exceptional wealth and power. “I think that this is partly what prevented the explosion of Me Too in France,” Mallet adds. 

As an American journalist, I have often taken French women to task for their willingness to tolerate sexist behavior and institutions—only to learn that they are fighting in ways that diverge from what is familiar to me.

The French journalists I spoke with for this piece are considered radical. But because of the historical omertà surrounding gender inequalities, they were leery of applying a preconceived idea of what “good” feminism should be, and did not hesitate to express reservations about the conflation of social media hashtags and whisper networks with political activism.  

Feminism also remains much less mainstream than it is in the US. Engaged journalists are therefore more likely to accept invitations to argue with universalist (anti-feminist) thinkers who defend the likes of Woody Allen, instead of dismissing the debate as irrelevant to their cause.

“I think it’s a good thing Allen’s memoir will be published,” says Faure, who published a book with a sister imprint in 2018. “Different points of view should be allowed to make themselves heard.”

While in the US an emphasis on the differences of lived experience has superseded an abstract idea of absolute equality, in France the latter continues to be held up as an ideal. “Of course I support Me Too; I’m thrilled that we’re starting to be heard,” says Lorriaux. “But I think that feminism should be for justice in general, not just for women.”

Yes, Woody Allen’s memoir was published in France; yes, the cancellation of his contract has been shamelessly repurposed to silence those who speak in the name of feminism. But this does not mean the French media are passively standing by, nor is it a sign of French backwardness, as is so often implied in the American media. French journalists are paying attention—but they must situate their reporting within their own cultural framework in order to generate the desired change. 

As an American journalist, I have often taken French women to task for their willingness to tolerate sexist behavior and institutions—only to learn that they are fighting in ways that diverge from what is familiar to me. Me Too is a global, not a national, movement, and we cannot fully understand its reach and scope through a strictly American lens. If Me Too is about listening to women, then a cross-cultural comparison can be used to better understand the mechanisms of power on both sides.

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Madison Mainwaring has written for the New York Times, The Economist, and Harper’s, among other publications. She is a PhD candidate in French at Yale and lives in Paris.

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