It was only a matter of time before the global reach of the #MeToo movement got blocked by the distance between French mores and North American ones. How long were the French going to sit by and watch women destroy male careers on the grounds of sexual misbehaviour before somebody cried "Vive la différence!"
In an open letter published in Le Monde newspaper on Tuesday, more than 100 French women in the media and cultural industries complained that the #MeToo movement had gone too far and was becoming an assault on free speech. Under the headline The Freedom To Proposition Someone Is Indispensable To Sexual Freedom, the signatories, including veteran French actress Catherine Deneuve, stated that rape is a crime, but that persistent or clumsy flirting is not. They argued #MeToo represents a new puritanism that gets men fired for as little as a hand on a knee or an intimate remark and treats women as perpetual victims who can't take care of themselves.
Then a second group, which Le Monde described as "feminist activists," denounced the letter as "old school" and said it trivialized sexual violence. Indeed, by characterizing some of the misdemeanours as nothing but "a hand on the knee, stealing a kiss, making intimate remarks at professional dinner or sending a message with sexual connotations to a woman who doesn't reciprocate the attraction," the letter greatly underplays the nature of allegations against men who have been fired from various media and entertainment jobs. The vast majority of cases involve, at the very least, multiple allegations of multiple instances of groping, exposure and inappropriate remarks to women who are always younger and less powerful than their aggressors and often beholden to these men for jobs or career advancement.
The seniority of the women who signed the letter is part of the problem. There comes this illusory moment in many a woman's midlife when you suddenly think construction workers are getting politer and many public places seem friendlier. Then, if you are not totally cocooned in privilege, you have to realize that no, it's only that they don't try it on you any more. Sexual harassment, as various commentators have noted, is power eroticized; predators pick their victims and don't usually try things on their equals. If they do, their equals can easily rebuff an unwanted advance. Those are the encounters that get shrugged off every day; those are not the cases that #MeToo is bringing to light.
In France, where the cultural elite long ago decided Roman Polanski's artistry trumped his rape of a 13-year-old girl, there is now a confusion, as those feminists point out, between sexual seduction based on mutual pleasure and respect and sexual violence. France's global cultural identity owes as much to the cosmetics and fashion industries as it does to wine and cheese and the country positions itself as the virtuous example of a more relaxed, less uptight attitude to love and sex than that of the anglophone world and North America in particular. But it also rejoices in a culture with a real flair for disguising unrepentant sexism with liberal doses of Chanel No. 5.
We are watching men whose professional achievements – if not perhaps personalities – we greatly respected outed as bullies and predators; it's hard not to lament the loss of their careers. But that is only because we can see them losing those careers. What of the multiple women whose careers were stalled, blocked or forced on to other paths because they had to leave a workplace where they were not permitted to get on with the job unless they tolerated assault? Those careers paths are now only hypothetical and their loss invisible.
The most cursory look at cultural industries in most Western countries will reveal gross gender discrepancies, the higher you rise. It varies from field to field and country to country, but generally, women are significantly underrepresented as film and theatre directors, as museum leaders and as news executives while they have more difficulty rising as high as visual artists, filmmakers and actors. #MeToo is uncovering one of the real reasons between the intractable gender imbalance across arts and media. That is the kind of tragedy the French should be worried about, not the loss of the right to hit on every human who crosses your path.