World Europe

The Weinstein effect: Why France is taking sexual harassment seriously this time

a shift in thought

The charges against IMF head and presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn just six years ago weren't enough to shift French societal thinking against harassment in the way that the Weinstein scandal has today. Why?

Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration for the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Paris Nov. 15.
Thibault Camus/AP
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Dominique Strauss-Kahn was considered a probable French presidential contender in 2011 when a maid in a hotel in New York accused him of sexual assault.

The charges killed his career at the helm of the International Monetary Fund – and his political aspirations. The case also generated subsequent accusations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Strauss-Kahn, known as DSK.

But when feminists tried to capitalize on the moment, they failed. One website called ledire.org, or “to say it,” tried to get women to anonymously come forward with their experiences involving untoward sexual advances, but it didn’t make much of a ripple and eventually fizzled.

What a difference six years makes.

Today, in the wake of sexual harassment claims made against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, it is the French have been among the most vocal internationally in calling out once-ignored abusers. France's social media movement #BalanceTonPorc, or “out your pig,” is a more pointed and accusatory version of its American counterpart #MeToo.

And the groundswell has been acknowledged at the top. “Our entire society is sick with sexism,” French President Emmanuel Macron said Saturday, unveiling plans to put gender equity at the heart of his presidency on the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Now women are seeking to capitalize on the moment that feels markedly different, in size and scale, than the era of DSK to try and push for lasting cultural change.

“People are starting to understand that this is not just feminists trying to cause a ruckus,” says Fatima-Ezzahra Benomar, co-founder of Les Effronté-e-s, a feminist organization in Paris.

Changing male and French minds

The numbers seem to bear out a cultural awakening. Police reports of rape, sexual assault, and harassment increased by a third in France in October after the Weinstein affair became public, to 1,577, from 1,213 in October last year, according to figures reported by AFP.

Part of what is happening here is simply the global momentum that has seen women around the world join social media campaigns to condemn male aggression that has often gotten a societal shrug or, in the worst cases, been covered up or not taken seriously, even by police investigators.

In France, the outpouring also owes to a cumulative effect, the frustration felt after so little changed after the DSK scandal and the continued controversy surrounding filmmaker Roman Polanski, who fled the United States in 1978 after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl and has been living in France. Now with thousands of women coming forward in France, it’s not so easy to shrug it off.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Saturday.
Ludovic Marin//Reuters
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“In the past, we’ve had a tendency to minimize men’s actions, to say, ‘Oh the guy was just dense or vulgar,’ ” says Alix Béranger, the co-founder of the feminist group La Barbe, or the Beard. Now, she says, people are less accepting of that.

And that includes men themselves, says Ms. Beranger, who says their continued awareness is key to shifting public attitudes. “They’re starting to see that their colleague, boss, friend were harassers,” she says. “For men to come out and denounce things that other men have done, that’s something I hope we begin to see more of.”

The most powerful man in France already has. President Macron said Saturday during a speech at the Elysee presidential palace, which he began with a minute of silence for the 123 women killed by a partner or ex in the last year, that “it is time for shame to change camps.”

He proposed a series of disparate measures, which include bottom-up and top-down approaches to rebalance power between the sexes. That includes a proposal to set a minimum age for sexual consent, after two recent cases in which 11-year-old victims were ruled not to have been raped by much older men because the act was “consensual.” Macron also unveiled plans to create an online hotline linked to police stations. The government wants on-the-spot fines issued by police for catcalling. He also proposed new gender equality training for nursery school teachers.

Macron added, however, that this all must be done in a French context. “We are not a Puritan society,” he said.

The notion of gender equality is deeply ingrained in French culture. Macron himself ran on a campaign to make gender parity a reality in France, including in his cabinet. When debates raged in the summer of 2016 over the “burkini,” the full-piece swimwear for Muslim women, the argument among critics that had the most resonance was that the garment was anti-feminist.

'Treading a fine line'

Yet at the same time France has cherished the role seduction plays in its society, and it often distinguishes itself from what it considers the overzealous morality in America over matters of sex. In the case of DSK, while the criminal element of his case ruined his career, many French believe his sexual practices as such have no bearing on his ability to hold public office.

With #BalanceTonPorc, some here worry here about an “Anglo-American” creep.

Elisabeth Lévy, a founder of Causer magazine, which challenges the dominating media narrative, says that the reaction to Weinstein has gone overboard, confounding criminality and unsavory behavior, minimizing the former and stifling the natural interplay between men and women. “Even chivalry has become criminalized,” she says.

Beyond that, Ms. Lévy also says the social media movement gives too much power to one's word against the other. “It’s not for us, the public, to judge, nor the media. Society can’t replace the justice system,” she says. “All you have to do is denounce someone on Twitter and they’re dead socially. There’s no presumption of innocence, no legal framework for all these comments.”

Anne Berger, a professor of gender studies at the University of Paris 8, is also wary of the #BalanceTonPorc campaign, seeing the reference to “your pig” as hypocritical. “It’s possessive and symbolically reduces men to pigs. They’re essentially doing to men what they’ve done to women, which doesn’t help the transformation of relations.”

Yet it is challenging behavior in a country where “sexual tolerance is supposed to be part of the public ethos in France,” she says. “We’re treading a fine line. It’s a pouring out of anger but if you have anger without analysis, it can’t go far. It needs to go beyond denunciation.”

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