Henri Gervex, “Rolla” , 1878
It’s no news to anyone that France has a historically masculine-centric culture. The great republican project of the Revolution left women out; in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1791), Olympe de Gouges supplied her Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen. (When she got too mouthy, the Jacobins arrested and executed her.) Feminism here has always been articulated not as a philosophy of equality, as it has in Anglophone countries, but around a philosophy of difference. This has often resulted in essentialist ideas about women’s experiences; as the feminist journalist and activist Lauren Bastide put it recently, the universalist French feminist context “is the opposite of intersectionalist feminism. You’re never going to be able to say that being a black woman is different from being a white woman.”
Still, unlike the U.S., France has actually taken steps to address inequality between the sexes. The new Secretary of State in charge of equality between men and women, Marlène Schiappa, is actively trying to implement legislation against street harassment. And in 1999, for instance, a law was passed that specified that political parties had to submit an equal number of male and female candidates for office or lose public funding in proportion to the inequality. By 2012, only two parties had even slightly approached parity: the Greens and the Communist Party. And, more recently, Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! saw 40 percent women elected, which was a record. Macron himself promised when he was elected that he would make a woman prime minister, if he found someone competent. His choice for PM? Édouard Philippe. It’s just a question of competence ladies, nothing more. Enjoy your march.
When I published a book here, I received the full Gallic treatment from two men connected with my publisher. These instances were, in their way, lovely little parables of French masculinity. In the first one, an author only slightly older than me sent me (uninvited, unreciprocated) dirty text messages. I found them kind of funny, in an “Oh, French men, so typical” kind of way, and the fact that the sender was attractive didn’t hurt, even if I had no intention of sleeping with him. He never touched me inappropriately or did anything else out of line.
The other instance is, I suppose, a #MeToo moment, though I will not be “naming and shaming” either man. Another, much older, more powerful man took it upon himself, one evening, in front of several other male authors, including the text-message Casanova, to grab my ass as we were playing pool. I was wearing a kicky little miniskirt, I leaned over to take my shot, and ça alors, a pair of hands is grabbing mes fesses, right under ma jupe! I made some kind of whooping noise and hit the man over the head with my pool cue. He roared with laughter. The other authors roared with laughter. I went through the phases of outrage: I was the Stereotypical Humorless Feminist. Worse, I was a Humorless American Feminist.
I thought back to this experience the other day, as I was reading the now-infamous op-ed in Le Monde, signed by Catherine Deneuve and ninety-nine other women, suggesting that unlike rape, such “non-events” like ass grabbing are part of the “freedom to bother” we all apparently enjoy in a civilized society. What happened to me with that publisher was sexual assault, in that it was uninvited, nonconsensual, and took place in a situation that was a clear imbalance of power. Still, as far as my personal pantheon of trauma goes, I have decided it was no big deal. But that’s for me to say, not Catherine Deneuve.
In the matter of sexism, things haven’t changed all that much since 1949, when Simone de Beauvoir observed that “the vast majority of men … do not posit women as inferior: they are too imbued today with the democratic ideal not to recognize all human beings as equals,” but “as he nevertheless recognizes some points of inferiority—professional incapacity being the predominant one—he attributes them to nature.” The supposedly fundamental differences between the sexes serves as the basis for the most brazen inequalities, from unequal pay to unequal treatment in the professional world. It’s the reason why that powerful man in publishing thought he could help himself to my ass. And it’s the reason why I knew it was pointless for me to tell anyone what he’d done.
There is a distinctly American flavor to the #MeToo movement. The movement simply has not caught on in France the way it has in America, and perhaps this is in part because the movement is too reminiscent of American sexual mores, a “puritanism“ that Deneuve and her cosignatories specifically rail against. But they’re also reacting to the ways in which this puritanism has begun to take hold on their own soil: the younger generation of French feminists is intersectional, savvy, and ready to rumble. A new generation of feminist writers, podcasters, academics, and activists is having its moment, and the older generation is all too aware of it. In some ways, the younger French feminists are even ahead of their American counterparts: the #BalanceTonPorc (“squeal on your pig”) hashtag was launched in France the day before Alyssa Milano created the #MeToo hashtag. And a week before the Weinstein story broke, there was already a debate underway in France about sexual harassment, and how we should talk about it.
On September 30, 2017, a clash between a writer and a politician on a French evening television program launched a nationwide polemic. On the show, On n’est pas couché, the former spokesperson for the Green Party, Sandrine Rousseau, was invited to talk about her recently published book about being molested by Denis Baupin, the vice president of the Assemblée nationale. She is one of five women who have accused Baupin of assault, forcing him to resign. His behavior has apparently long been an open secret in French politics; he was known among his female colleagues, apparently, as “the octopus.” The case was eventually dropped on the grounds that the statute of limitations on the complaints had elapsed. Baupin, for his part, has protested that he is just a “misunderstood libertine.”
Rousseau’s book is called Parler, “to talk,” and her vision for addressing sexual assault, as she articulated it on the show, was interactive, collective, action based, and political. Her book, she said, was “a call to acknowledge that the subject of sexual abuse, violence against women, is still very taboo in our culture.” She pointed out that when the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair broke, the Socialist Party did “nothing, there was no reaction.” The Green Party, however, took action, putting in place a call center so that victims of harassment could speak with “people who were formées pour accueillir la parole [trained to listen to them].”
At this, one of the show’s regular panelists, the writer Christine Angot, who has published her own personal accounts of sexual assault and incest, lost her patience and accused Rousseau of spouting nonsense. “Formées pour accueuillir la parole? I cannot hear this. Try to understand: I cannot hear this.” She had a difficult time expressing what, exactly, she had a hard time hearing; she repeated herself, she repeated Rousseau, she trailed off, and then she powered back: “I forbid you to say what you are saying! You cannot speak in the name of all women! You should speak only in the first person [vous auriez dû dire ‘je’]. We can only speak of our own rape … There is no one to help. You have to get it through your head. There is no one who can understand.”
“So what are we supposed to do?” Rousseau asked, in tears.
“On se débrouille.” We deal with it. At some point during the exchange—it’s hard to know when, as it’s been edited for television—Angot stormed off the set as the crowd booed her. The producers had to convince Angot, who was also in tears in her dressing room, to come back on camera and finish the conversation.
When this episode of On n’est pas couché aired, I happened to be reading Virginie Despentes’s essay collection King Kong Theory, in which she describes her rape, at the age of eighteen, by a group of men from whom she and a friend had accepted a ride. A few years later, she writes, she was reading an article by Camille Paglia in Spin in which Paglia controversially asserted that women run the risk of being assaulted every time they leave their homes, and that if that’s too scary for them, they should stay home with their mothers, manicuring their nails. Despentes’s initial disgust at Paglia’s article soon gave way to excitement. She was elated at seeing rape finally talked about in a way that didn’t entrap women in a narrative of victimization. “For the first time, someone was valuing the ability to get over it, instead of lying down obligingly in the anthology of trauma. Someone was devaluing rape, its impact and its consequences. This did not invalidate any part of what happened.” Devaluing rape is a risky thing to do. It may be seen as excusing the perpetrators, or, through minimizing one’s own experience, as a means of indirectly invalidating those of other women. But for Despentes it was a means of empowerment. In “getting over it,” she deprived the men who’d attacked her of their power to control or define her life.
Christine Angot (left) and Sandrine Rousseau (right) on On n’est pas couché.
Over the course of the twenty-minute segment, Rousseau articulated a legal rather than a personal definition of consent, even when asked what her personal opinion was. It seemed the personal simply didn’t exist for her in the face of the legal. Yet she also insisted on the importance of telling her own story. She saw the Green Party’s call center as quantifiable progress. Angot retorted that you cannot appeal to a political party to do anything in this situation. So to sum up: For Rousseau, the personal is personal, and must be valued as such, but it is also political, and legal, and must be treated appropriately in that forum. For Angot, the personal is personal, and should stay that way. Talk about it if you want but don’t pretend you speak for everyone else.
Reading Despentes, I thought of Angot’s on se débrouille approach, parts of which were still baffling me. If Angot wanted to se débrouiller toute seule, then fine. But what about women who needed others to forge spaces for them to speak? How could Angot—in insisting each woman only speak in the first person—speak for them? Thinking about Angot and Rousseau’s exchange now, after everything we’ve seen and heard in the U.S. and France since this movement began, it seems to me that Angot and Rousseau represent two different visions of French society, the old and the new. Angot was born in 1959, Rousseau in 1972. Angot’s “just deal with it” attitude hearkens back to a France that went out with the Minitel, where men are charming seducers and women pretend to like the boss’s hand on their ass.
When Despentes was raped, in the late 1980s, people still didn’t really talk about what had happened to them. There were few books she could turn to. As she writes, “this crucial and fundamental trauma—the very definition of femininity, ‘the body that can be taken by force and must remain defenseless’—was not part of literature. Not a single woman who had been through the process of rape had taken to words to craft a novel out of her experience … Rape wasn’t allowed into the symbolic realm.”
But it was. It just went by a different name: libertinisme. The “freedom to bother” that Deneuve et al defend so vociferously has a rich literary and cinematic history in France, from the Marquis de Sade to Georges Bataille to Deneuve’s cosignatory Catherine Millet’s erotic memoir La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M; from The Story of O and Belle de Jour to the recent Isabelle Huppert rape fantasy Elle. Many of these works are daring in that they explore the way a woman can take pleasure in violent subordination. But as Nancy K. Miller, the author of French Dressing: Men, Women, and Ancien Régime Fiction has pointed out, though libertine literature is marked by the “playful pursuit of pleasure” and the “free exercise of power,” the power is never equal between the sexes. As she told the novelist Catherine Cusset, “I think there is a tyranny of a certain kind of playfulness that benefits one group”: men. “It’s a very different game for women to play.”
Over the course of their discussion, Cusset notes that the real appeal of libertine fiction may be the way it opens up a sphere of ambiguity: it “escapes a strict moral system of values: it does not ignore the moral code but it plays with it.” It is this sphere of ambiguity that I think explains why the genre is so popular in France, and why it didn’t grow up in more puritanical cultures like England or America: in France, there has historically been more tolerance for not knowing exactly where one stands, for a certain flexibility in sexual relationships. This may have historically always favored the man, but it doesn’t exclude the possibility of a female libertinage, in which the woman exercises the power—even through her own submission.
How we read narratives of libertinisme comes down, yet again, to the question of who is writing, or speaking, and how; certainly Deneuve and Huppert are speaking, in a way, through their characters in Belle de Jour and Elle, but those are films that were scripted and directed by men, based on novels by men. Works expressing a feminist libertine aesthetic by women, like The Story of O or La Vie sexuelle de Catherine M are less often greeted as part of this literary tradition and have to have their cases made for them (by men preferably); to wit, reviewing Millet in Bookforum, Saul Anton specifies: “This book’s pleasures are first and foremost literary.” As if they might be, what, culinary?
On On n’est pas couché, things got surprisingly semiotic for an evening panel show. The famously acerbic author and director Yann Moix asked, seemingly in Rousseau’s defense, if the key to their dispute didn’t lie in the fact that Angot is a writer, and writers, he said, quoting Georges Bataille, are there to “face down the impossible.” On the other hand, Rousseau is a politician and therefore operates “in another universe.” “There are two ways of expressing oneself in society,” he said: “discours and parole,” discourse and speech. If I’ve understood correctly (it’s been awhile since I’ve been au fait with Saussure, but I think it’s been awhile for Moix as well), he seemed to be suggesting that writers create art (I guess this is what he meant by “parole”?) while politicians speechify, or speak in policies and issues (discourse).
Then it was Rousseau’s turn to take offense. “I can’t listen to him talk like this, telling me I am speechifying. I’m telling my story here.” Women telling their own stories, in forms like the diary or the letter, have often been looked down upon. Rousseau was maintaining her ultimate right to tell her story and to be taken seriously for it.
The fact that neither side could really articulate what she meant, or what she was upset about in the exchange, indicates that when we have to address these issues in legal, social terms, we don’t have the language that we need to talk about sexual assault, and we may never have it. Angot has often written and spoken of the limits of language and the incompatibility between prose and speech. The outline of a story captures nothing, Angot said on another French television show in 1999, after being asked to give a short summary of her book L’Inceste. She cannot describe what it is “about”; the content cannot be paraphrased. If it could, it wouldn’t be writing. “I don’t tell, I write,” she said, patiently trying to explain the difference.
At the end of the day, the question of literary merit was not the most important aspect of the On n’est pas couché debacle, but I think it’s striking that it came up—it indicates that the real question is how comfortable we are willing to be with ambiguity. It’s possible Moix wasn’t reaching for Saussure but for Roland Barthes, who makes a similar distinction between parole and écriture (or “scription,” as he prefers to call it). The parole is more dangerous because it can be uttered quickly and not taken back, whereas the scription “has its life ahead of it.” The scription raises questions that the parole tries to shut down by answering them.
The role of art is to open up productive ambiguities, to pose questions of morality or of ethics rather than to prescribe answers. It is bad for art, and bad for a culture, to censure works of art, as in the recent attempt in the name of feminism to “contextualize” Balthus’s Thérèse Dreaming. The best work uses the medium of literature or film to explore the relationships between power, freedom, and sex, not to dictate how we ought to feel about them.
Living in France, it sometimes feels like the men and women here are so invested in performing some libertine idea of Frenchness that they’ve lost track of whether they really like it. I remember being genuinely surprised, when I moved here, to find that that the rumors about Parisians are true: they really do have orgies and go to swinger’s clubs. It’s a pretty bourgeois thing to do. There’s even something upwardly mobile about it. Some of my friends have done it; one of my exes tried to get me to go to the couples-only Les Chandelles, which advertises itself on the Internet as an “erotic boudoir” and features on its website errant nonsense like “never forget seduction is like an unfinished painting.” Their Twitter feed is full of illustrations of girls in nighties or photos of them in high heels and seamed stockings, Eyes Wide Shut masks and bottles of champagne at the ready. But it doesn’t look sexy and transgressive, just sort of tired, an empty set of signifiers.
The famous “look the other way” approach to monogamy really does exist here as well, though whenever you see it played out in recent films or television shows it’s always an issue, never something people are sophisticatedly taking in stride (see: any number of films with Charlotte Gainsbourg in them). This conflicted attitude toward monogamy in France has fascinated me to the point where I’ve spent the last decade writing a novel about it. It seemed linked, somehow, to this notion of libertinisme, and to a French concept of sexual freedom that I suspected was only a myth but hoped was not. Marriage, I reasoned, was just as much of a construction, just as fetishized and mythologized.
When I started my research, I began to collect issues of magazines devoted to l’érotisme, le désir, le libertinage, art & sexe. (French magazines are great at bringing together a bunch of different writers and documents on a given theme and calling it a dossier spécial.) The December 1998 issue of Le Magazine littéraire is headlined Les libertins: séduction et subversion. It wouldn’t do well in the VIDA count: of the twenty-one articles in the dossier, only one is by a woman (about male writers writing women at the fin de siècle), and only one is about a woman (Ninon de Lenclos, a seventeenth-century writer and courtesan).
As I work on the novel (slowly, in between other projects), I find myself wondering who benefits from all this freedom, if true freedom is really possible without anyone ever getting hurt, and if that means a feminist libertinage is impossible, or if not, what it would look like, and how we would even begin to describe it. But I’m not sure we’ve figured things out any better in the U.S., with our cultural preference for monogamy and our sometimes tolerant but often skeptical attitude toward, let’s say, alternative sexual practices. It hardly needs pointing out that libertinage is, by and large, something men do to women.
For Deneuve and her cosignatories, it must seem as if that libertine culture were on the wane—and, in its departure, as if something really crucial to French identity were being lost. But the true spirit of libertinage is not that some guy gets to rub up against you on the metro: it’s a tolerance for ambiguity, it’s irreverence in the face of platitudes. In France—or maybe just in adulthood—I have learned that art and sex both need to be, on some level, transgressive, and that our conversations about art and sex require nuance. But I am afraid that the nuance and ambiguity are endangered at this moment. I am afraid that important phrases like “you’re making me uncomfortable” and “you ignored my nonverbal cues” are being reduced to self-righteous memes. When it rings true, the #MeToo movement is about laying bare power dynamics, giving vent to anger, validating experience. But where it goes awry is where it shuts down ambiguity. We can’t just clamor for the stories, we have to allow room for them to surprise us, and trouble us. Desire thrives off risk, which makes it risky to legislate, legally or socially. We can’t presume to speak for each other. Il faut dire je, to paraphrase Angot: we have to speak in the first person, and keep encouraging others to speak in the first person, if we’re ever going to level the field of play.
Lauren Elkin is the author of Flâneuse: Women Walk the City. She lives in Paris.
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