#MeToo in France and French literary and academic publications

The #MeToo movement exposes and confronts sexual abuse and harassment. Its hashtag spread virally on social media in the context of accusations of sexual assault held against the American film producer Harvey Weinstein in the autumn of 2017. The movement has had huge international social and political repercussions, and has inspired or shaped academic works in a variety of fields, including history, philosophy and literature.

In the field of library classifications, the Library of Congress subject heading “MeToo movement” was created in 2020, and uses sources defining it as a movement “launched in 2006 in the United States to assist survivors of sexual violence, especially females of colour” (Encyclopedia Britannica online), which “burgeoned across social media, moving beyond Twitter and into living rooms and courtrooms” (Routledge handbook of the politics of the #MeToo movement, 2021), “revealed sexual abuse in every sphere of society” (Ruth Everhart, The #metoo reckoning, 2020), and intends “to create solidarity among survivors of sexual harassment” (Center for American Progress website). As social media played such an important role in the spread of the #MeToo movement, the Library of Congress also contributed to recording it through the compilation of a Web archive. We can also mention the #metoo Digital Media Collection built by the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, at Harvard University.

In terms of print production, recent books dealing not only with rape and sexual abuse, but also patriarchy, masculinity, sexual discrimination, feminism, or the history of women, reference the #MeToo movement as an inspiration, grounding them in contemporary social and cultural debates.

Among the publications in French acquired by Cambridge University Library, Ne nous libérez pas, on s’en charge : une histoire des féminismes de 1789 à nos jours by Bibia Pavard, Florence Rochefort, and Michelle Zancarini-Fournel (La Découverte, 2020, C216.c.8739), traces a social history of feminism from after the French revolution, confronting issues of social, racial and gender inequalities, and specifically asking what the #MeToo movement reveals about women’s engagement.  

La littérature à l’heure de #MeToo by Hélène Merlin-Kajman (Ithaque, 2020, C216.c.6846) engages with reader-response criticism and asks whether literature stands beyond good and evil as its transgressions are questioned and judged through new ethical concerns and social and cultural values. She argues that literature is not life and that reading both liberates and restrains us.

Féminisme et philosophie by Geneviève Fraisse (Gallimard, 2020, C206.d.5992) is a collection of essays and writings first published in different media including blog posts, newspapers articles, etc. It has a strong autobiographical component, shedding light on the itinerary of the author through the 20th and 21st centuries –Fraisse is an important thinker and feminist, a researcher and European MP (see this review on OpenEdition).

The #MeToo movement has also been subject to debate and criticism. In Le mirage #MeToo (Cherche Midi, 2021, C206.d.8240), the philosopher and psychoanalyst Sabine Prokhoris questions the theoretical bases and excesses of the movement, and interrogates its consequences.

This raises the wider question of the “cancel culture” or “call-out culture” which leads to public figures being ostracised, boycotted or shunned, because of their controversial, unethical or even criminal speech or behaviour. Opposition to the “cancel culture” is based on a defence of freedom of expression, as it is considered as a form of censorship. Exposure of misconduct can also be associated with “délation”, and with the risk of misguided or unfounded denunciation, when an actual judicial process has not taken place. The attitudes towards denunciation and freedom of expression may reveal differences between the American and European / French cultures (see the post by Cécile de Kervasdoué, “Comment la “cancel culture” se développe tardivement en France”, France Culture, 20/01/2020).   

The backlash against the #MeToo movement also calls into question the idea of a (historically) more relaxed attitude towards sex in French society and culture (seen by some as embedding male sexual domination over women), emblematised by the letter entitled « Nous défendons une liberté d’importuner, indispensable à la liberté sexuelle » written in Le Monde in 2018 and signed by 100 women, including the actress Catherine Deneuve, which called the movement “puritanical” (it is available on Europresse for members of Cambridge UL).

In the French context, it is worth recalling the public debate which occurred around the controversial 2020 César du cinema competition, when Roman Polanski received twelve nominations and two distinctions (Best director and Best adaptation) for the film J’accuse (dealing with the high-profile late 19th-early 20th century Dreyfus affair, when the French Jewish army captain, victim of antisemitism, was wrongly condemned for treason). Polanski was charged with sexual offences in the USA in 1977, then fled to Europe to escape a prison sentence (see The girl : a life in the shadow of Roman Polanski by Samantha Geimer and Lawrence Silver, London : Simon & Schuster, 2013, C208.c.3120). He was imprisoned in Switzerland for a short time in 2009, but escaped further extradition back to the USA. Many other sexual assault accusations/allegations are still hanging over him.

The 2020 César awards (marked by the resignation of the Académie des Césars board, and by live protests and walk-outs during the ceremony) sparked debate around the celebration of a work of art from a creator otherwise disqualified on ethical grounds (arguing of the distinction between man and work), as the award was also interpreted as the expression of a complete disregard for abuse against women.

In 2016, French radio and TV presenter and journalist Flavie Flament published the novel La consolation (C207.d.148), with an autobiographical dimension, about the rape of a child committed by a famous photographer (who has been identified as David Hamilton); it was made into a film in 2017. The #MeToo movement (often associated with the hashtag #balancetonporc, “denounce your pig”) played a key role in the public exposures of French affairs of paedophilia, incest (#MeTooInceste) and homosexual abuse (#MeTooGay). It has led to the publication of a number of testimonies from victims of sexual abuse: in La petite fille sur la banquise (Grasset, 2018, C206.d.8242), Adélaïde Bon tells about her rape as a child and the resulting trauma. In Un si long silence (Plon, 2020, C206.d.8239), figure-skating champion Sarah Abitbol confronts the abuse committed by her coach.

In Le consentement (Grasset, 2020, C206.d.5379), Vanessa Springora exposes how as a teenager she was seduced and abused by the famous writer Gabriel Matzneff. La familia grande (Éditions du Seuil, 2021, C206.d.6824), by Camille Kouchner, a lawyer and daughter of former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, reveals the abuse committed against her teenage brother by her stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, who later became director of the prestigious university Sciences-Po. Christine Angot’s Le voyage dans l’Est (Flammarion, 2021, C206.d.7486), which tells about the incest committed by the author’s father, received the 2021 Prix Médicis on 26 October.

#MeToo was crucial in liberating the voices of victims of sexual abuse and has had an impact on legislation. France tightened its laws against sexual and sexist violence and was the first country to condemn and fine harassment on the streets in 2018 (loi Schiappa). In 2021, it passed a new law setting the age of consent at 15 (or 18 in cases of incest). These are steps in the wider societal and cultural recognition of and fight against sexual abuse.

Irene Fabry-Tehranchi

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