Since France is renowned as the land of seduction and Ooh la la, it was inevitable that a French woman would make a telling contribution to the international debate about the sexual harassment of young women by older and more powerful men. In the Anglosphere the debate has been conducted on social media by the #MeToo movement; the French offshoot is #balancetonporc, which roughly translates as ‘squeal on your pig’. The original campaign against these unpleasant men was triggered by last year’s Harvey Weinstein scandal, after a regiment of actresses complained about the ageing director’s disgusting behaviour towards them, including allegations not just of harassment but of indecent exposure, physical assault and rape.
#balancetonporc was not the last word by French women on the subject, however. During January 100 women put another side to the argument. Catherine Deneuve and 99 others used the columns of Le Monde to say the campaign was motivated by puritanism and hatred of men.
A couple of days later, in an interview with Paris Match, Brigitte Bardot – one of the few French actresses to compare with the star of Belle de Jour in the sex symbol rankings – denounced #balancetonporc far more vigorously than even Mme Deneuve and her friends. She said she had never been sexually harassed, but always welcomed the compliment when a man told her she was beautiful or congratulated her on a more specific part of her anatomy.
More provocatively, she said the vast majority of cases brought up by harassed women were “hypocritical, ridiculous, without interest”, and that younger actresses had always flirted with men in order to secure advancement in the film industry.
The problem with this question is that generalisation is impossible, and both Mmes Deneuve and Bardot fell into this trap. Mme Deneuve apologised not for what she said, but for having given the impression that she took the questions of sexual assault or violence against women lightly. Mme Bardot has a history of outspoken behaviour, having been prosecuted five times for racially inflammatory language – she has little time for her Islamic concitoyens – and is a strong supporter of the Front National: as such, any contribution she wished to make to this sensitive debate was almost certain to bring a shower of obloquy down on her.
This is unfortunate, because the argument is not all one-way, and many women of the actresses’ age in Britain have expressed similar opinions, albeit with more circumspection and nuance.
Their interventions come at a delicate time – not just because of the campaigns, but because French Equality Minister Marlène Schiappa is trying to frame a law to tackle a perceived upsurge of violence against women, and has been undertaking a nationwide consultation on the subject, to include a policy on sexual harassment.
Yet Mme Deneuve and her co-signatories drew a distinction between serious assault and those men who had touched a woman’s knee, tried to kiss her or introduced “intimate” subjects into conversations, and for what they considered these relatively harmless acts had been forced to resign. The signatories called this “the right to pester”, equating to “sexual freedom”.
It reminds me of a remark of the late Alan Clark, the British government minister, diarist and serial womaniser. Asked whether he was ashamed of his reputation for making “unwanted advances” towards women, he replied: “How do I know they are unwanted unless I make them?”
Weinstein is alleged to have gone far further than this, to a point where, if true, no right-thinking person of either gender would defend him. A group of more than 30 feminist activists in France attacked the Deneuve article, arguing that some women simply did not understand what some of their sisters were going through. Yet one French commentator – a man, Guillaume Bigot – said before the Deneuve storm broke that the French cultural tradition of seduction and romance was being threatened by the campaign against harassment.
How far a national tradition can be pleaded in aid of doing something that many people find objectionable is a moot point: it is reminiscent of the debate in England about the future of fox hunting.
As a man myself – albeit one who has always hoped that his own wife could go about her daily business, whether at work or recreation, without being subjected to intrusive advances from other men, let alone to something worse – I am not sure how valid anything I have to say on this subject can be.
To my mind, Mmes Bardot and Deneuve were not making a particularly French point, but one germane to their generation.
When they were starting out as beautiful young actresses the balance between men and women in most western societies was very different. In the last 50 or 60 years equality has come to mean more than getting the same pay for the same work, or the same career opportunities; it means women should not be expected to put up with treatment few men would tolerate.
It is hard to dispute that: but where certainly Mme Deneuve and her friends had a point is that those men who are merely crass rather than aggressive or violent should not merit the same degree of condemnation as those who engage in physical violation of whatever sort, or those who will not take no for an answer.
Most women are not shrinking violets, and many now of a certain age – like Mmes Bardot and Deneuve – were perfectly adept at giving tiresome men short shrift. But a man who uses his position to make a woman’s life miserable, or to punish her for a refusal to grant him sexual favours, is asking for the law to take him on. And that may well apply to France as to anywhere else – though, one trusts, with the appropriate sense of perspective.
Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs