PARIS — It takes a lot to get thousands of Parisian women to take to the streets on a cold November day. But a women’s march against sexual and gender-based violence is expected to gather large crowds in the French capital and other cities on Saturday, two years after the #MeToo movement swept the world.
Within a few weeks, two new reports of alleged sexual violence involving prominent figures in the country’s movie industry have caused a public uproar and shaken up the French establishment, including circles that had remained largely ambivalent towards the movement.
Earlier this month, former actress Valentine Monnier accused French-Polish director Roman Polanski of raping her in 1975 when she was 18. Just a few days before, award-winning actress Adèle Haenel accused director Christophe Ruggia of predatory behavior and sexual harassment when she was aged 12 to 15 and played a young autistic girl in one of his movies.
Both Polanski and Ruggia denied the allegations.
Ruggia faced immediate sanctions from the industry. Feminist groups have blocked screenings of Polanski’s latest movie, “An Officer and a Spy” (in French, J’accuse), while the controversy forced lead actor Jean Dujardin to cancel media appearances. Polanski, who has found a haven in France since fleeing the U.S. in 1978 to escape prosecution for sexual assault, is also losing long-standing support.
Two new reports of alleged sexual violence involving prominent figures in the country’s movie industry have caused a public uproar and shaken up the French establishment.
“More and more French women feel that they have the ability to speak,” Anne-Cécile Mailfert, president of French group The Women Foundation, said. “Adele Haenel … used this power to stick the knife in deeper, reminding recalcitrant machist French men that they had to stop using the concept of liberty as an excuse for harassment or rape.”
The airing of Haenel’s and Monnier’s stories triggered underlying tensions that had been building up since the Harvey Weinstein scandal erupted in 2017 — when the powerful American producer was accused of sexual abuse by multiple women.
Back then, the French #MeToo movement was met with caution, if not criticism, by part of the political and cultural elite. Most famously, a 2018 open letter signed by more than 100 French women, among them iconic actress Catherine Deneuve, argued that the movement had gone too far and created a fearful environment for men — Deneuve later apologized to victims of sexual assault.
The film industry, which has long hidden behind the sanctity of its art — a core part of French culture and its international aura — to avoid confronting some of the men behind the camera, now seems to express more willingness to act against potential abuse within its own ranks.
Just a few days after Haenel came forward, the French society of film directors (SRF) expelled Ruggia.
ARP, an organization of more than 200 filmmakers, has decided to come up with a new set of rules, which could lead to the expulsion of members charged with or convicted of a criminal offense. Such rules directly target Polanski.
In the last few months, awareness of sexual and domestic violence has also increased, with wider attention drawn to gender-based violence in France, including the covering of walls in several French cities with the names of the 131 victims of murder by their partners in 2019 and stirring up media coverage of such crimes.
As deaths mounted, the French government launched a wide consultation on the topic, with a report expected on November 25.
“French society is evolving on the issue of gender-based violence,” politician and feminist Caroline De Haas said. “It is partly due to the first wave created by #MeToo, which showed the systemic nature of a gender-based violence.”
And yet, in what is perhaps a prime illustration of French society’s ambivalence towards the issue, Polanski’s movie is topping the French box office.
“Adele Haenel [reminded] recalcitrant machist French men that they had to stop using the concept of liberty as an excuse for harassment or rape.” — Anne-Cécile Mailfert, president of French group The Women Foundation
De Haas reckons there is still a long road ahead, seeing “more of an acceleration” than a turning point.
Activists and human rights organizations are now turning up the pressure on authorities and politicians to act.
On Tuesday, a report from the Council of Europe, an international organization, highlighted low levels of reporting and conviction rates for sexual and domestic violence in France and urged the country to ramp up its policies to tackle gender-based violence.
“There is a strong political consensus that ending gender-based violence is an absolute priority,” said MP Céline Calvez, from French President Emmanuel Macron’s party La République En Marche and a member of a parliament committee on women’s rights. “The president and prime minister are personally committed to this,” she added.
Last September, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe launched a national debate on domestic violence, which is set to help shape a new plan announced for November 25.
Marlène Schiappa, secretary of state in charge of gender equality, will partly be in charge of implementing the new policy. But her €1 billion plan for promoting gender equality is already under fire from feminist associations, which say the figure doesn’t reflect the money actually put on the table.
“The gap between civil society mobilization and the real commitment from our government is simply shocking,” said De Haas, who wants an intervention plan in schools and ramped-up funding.
In a much commented-upon line in an interview to French newspaper Mediapart, actress Haenel slammed the French judicial system, which she said “ignored” victims.
“There is a strong political consensus that ending gender-based violence is an absolute priority.” — French MP Céline Calvez
“Women have been speaking up for years without being heard,” Schiappa said in an interview with POLITICO. “We are working on this, including by making it easier to file a complaint,” she added, defending the government’s record on the issue and the budgetary effort.
“We have strengthened sentences for sexual and gender-based violence in the law in 2018, mobilized professionals against domestic violence,” she added. “There is no silver bullet but strong measures to put in place, we are on it.”
On Sunday, the French justice ministry released a report showing “dysfunctions” in the law enforcement and judicial system when it comes to preventing domestic violence, in Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet’s own words.
Public authorities have yet to be convinced “that [sexual] crimes are indeed gender-based, and need to be addressed as such by prosecutors,” said Mailfert ofThe Women Foundation. “The current system helps perpetuate male violence.”