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Sexual harassment in the workplace and anywhere else needs to be condemned and punished appropriately

24 January 2018

When Catherine Deneuve and other prominent French women signed an open letter to Le Monde challenging the aims and methodology of the ‘#MeToo’ protest seeking to denounce male sexual predators they were much criticised.

The letter’s wording may be open to question but the women were making an important point that deserves to be heard. It is beyond argument the mistreatment of women by men is unacceptable. The problem is it is impossible to police people’s intimate affairs: it is undesirable to go too far.

While #MeToo and its French equivalent ‘#balancetonporc’ are well-intentioned movements based on solidarity among victims, they risk polarising debate.

There is no neat, black-and-white division between what is right and wrong in human interactive behaviour. The letter signatories were pointing out to the rest of the world that many instances of social and sexual intercourse fall into a grey moral area and laws and public outcry can only achieve so much. Or to put it another way, no one can say where la galanterie française (French gallantry), with its overtones of romance, charm and seduction ends and sexism begins.

To work together to eradicate sexual abuse we must be able to talk to each other and listen to what is being said without insisting on taking sides and throwing insults.

There is no easy way to regulate behaviour except through good education and allowing men and women to learn by trial and error – while ensuring suitable safeguards, of course, for the abuse of any sort of power.

Possibly the world has something to learn from France about this, at the risk of generalisation. France still finds a place for the natural and spontaneous interactions between the sexes. Personal ethics are nurtured by a society that (still, just) values community over individualism. Nowhere is perfect but we must not assume that puritanical strictures are the only answer to an age-old problem.

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