#MeToo, #WeAreAllHarassed embolden younger generation of women in France

#MeToo and #WeAreAllHarassed, which took off after a viral video showed Marie Laguerre being assaulted by a stranger on a Paris street, has emboldened her and a new, younger generation of women in France to tackle sexism and sexual harrasment.

Marie Laguerre's case increased support in France for new law aimed at catcalling, other street harassment

Marie Laguerre posted a video of her street attacker online, setting up a website called #NousToutesHarcèlement (#WeAreAllHarassed) where other women can share their stories. Her case increased support in France for a new law aimed at catcalling and other common forms of harassment on the street. (Lily Martin/CBC)

One of the first things you notice about Marie Laguerre is just how tiny she is physically. As though the autumn winds turning stronger with the season could easily send her skittering away along Paris streets, like a stray leaf.

Contrast that with the video that's gone viral in France of Laguerre standing her ground as a man she'd told to stop making lewd comments to her turned around, followed her and punched her in the head.

It's shocking to watch. But she remained on her feet, while onlookers on the patio of a nearby café jumped up in shock.

"I knew he was going to punch me in the head," the 22-year old civil engineering student said of the July attack.

"Just looking at him in the eyes was my way to dare him and show him that I was not going to look down or apologize or leave."

Closed-circuit TV footage offered up by a café owner allowed Laguerre to press charges against her attacker who was sentenced Thursday to six months in prison for aggravated violence with an object used as a weapon. She also posted it online, setting up a website called #NousToutesHarcèlement (#WeAreAllHarassed) where other women can share their stories.

Laguerre has joined a new, younger generation of women in France demanding faster-paced change when it comes to gender equality issues ranging from the pay gap to domestic abuse.

Her case increased support in France for new legislation pushed through by the government of French President Emmanuel Macron who has pledged to tackle sexism and sexual abuse in France.

It allows the police to impose on-the-spot fines of up to 750 euros ($1,115 Cdn) for catcalling and other common forms of harassment on the street in France.

Laguerre calls it a step in the right direction but says it will do nothing to change behaviour that goes on in private or behind closed doors.

"It sends a strong message," she said. "But it's more of a symbol than something that can actually be applied."

French philosopher and feminist historian Geneviève Fraisse says Laguerre's case comes at 'a new moment of French feminism.' (Lily Martin/CBC)

'A  new moment of French feminism'

French philosopher and feminist historian Geneviève Fraisse says Laguerre's case comes at "a new moment of French feminism."

"I believe in this generation," she said.

On the cusp of 70, Fraisse says she'd begun to despair over the survival of even the word "feminism" in recent years.

"But suddenly, especially the last year we passed, it was a good word," she said. 

Women under 25, in particular, are no longer afraid to describe themselves as feminists, she said.

Fraisse attributes the change in large part to the #MeToo movement. Its French equivalent is known as #BalanceTonPorc which translates as "rat on your pig."

Some French women denounce #MeToo

#MeToo hasn't been universally welcomed in France.

Last January, more than 100 prominent French women, including the actress Catherine Deneuve, signed a manifesto denouncing the movement as having gone too far. It was published in Le Monde newspaper.

"Rape is a crime," they wrote. "But trying to seduce someone, even persistently or cack-handedly is not. Nor is being gentlemanly a macho attack."

"Men have been punished summarily or forced out of their jobs when all they did was touch someone's knee or try to steal a kiss."

French journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet signed the letter denouncing the #MeToo movement as having gone too far. (Lily Martin/CBC)

French journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet signed the letter.

"If somebody makes a pass at me, even a clumsy pass at me, I might tell them to go [take a hike]," she said.

"But I will not be traumatized for life. You are building a narrative of victimhood, which I think means that women become very weak and very fragile.

"I don't want to go back to women-only carriages and trains like in the Victorian era. I think we've come a long way, baby."

Moutet argues that the #MeToo movement has descended into American prudery, undermining sexual liberation hard-fought for by previous generations of French feminists.

We think women and men can be friends; we like flirting without anything coming out of it; we like sex without, you know, slut shaming anyone.- Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, French journalist  

"We think women and men can be friends; we like flirting without anything coming out of it; we like sex without, you know, slut shaming anyone; and we like the whole grey area in between where you do not know yet where things are going to happen or not. And we think life is very complex!"

Far better, according to Moutet, to worry about why there is only one company on the French stock exchange with a woman at the helm.

Critics of the manifesto dismissed its signatories as members of an out-of-touch elite. There were plenty of jokes going around about Deneuve arguing for the right to be whistled at on the metro.

Cécile Fara, a young woman who offers tours of feminist street art in Paris, says 'I think one of the main criticisms those women got was that they … couldn't talk for the whole of society.' (Lily Martin/CBC)

"I think one of the main criticisms those women got was that they — as mostly middle-aged, mostly upper-class or middle-class women and also educated women and white women — they couldn't talk for the whole of society," says Cécile Fara, a young woman who offers tours of feminist street art in Paris.

Fraisse says arguments about what they call "la galanterie" in France, kind of an old fashioned chivalry, is as old as the French Revolution. Quite literally.

"It's the end of love if we have gender equality," Fraisse said.

The manifesto, says Fraisse, is "a way to say we are on the good side with the men; we are not on the bad side."

Handbook of feminist topics and thinking 

The temptation to dismiss American feminism, in particular, as a form of puritanism can be a favourite pastime for some in France.

But social media and the ever-shrinking global village mean divides are narrower than ever before.

A bookstore in the trendy Marais district of Paris gave a launch party for a new book called Is Beyoncé a Feminist? last month.

"Sometimes I think so, and sometimes I think, well, what she does is not very feminist," an 18-year-old standing in line at the booking signing table said when asked what the answer was.

"I'm curious to read it to know more about it."

The book is billed as kind of handbook of feminist topics and thinking aimed at encouraging young people to promote gender equality more actively.

Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, co-author of Is Beyoncé a Feminist?, works for a group called Osez le féminisme! (Dare to Be Feminist). She says the book quite deliberately includes figures from around the world, not just France. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Co-author Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu works for a group called Osez le féminisme! (Dare to Be Feminist). She says the book quite deliberately includes figures from around the world, not just France.

"We teach women to distrust each other, to judge each other, and so sisterhood is a first step in order to create a more equal society."

We teach women to distrust each other, to judge each other, and so sisterhood is a first step in order to create a more equal society.- Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, co-author of  Is Beyoncé a Feminist?

For many in France, the jury is still out as to whether or not the #MeToo movement has changed or is capable of changing a society that Macron described as being "sick with sexism."

But there are plenty who will argue it's already changed it.

Laguerre is one of them.

"Nobody's going to say we don't need feminism, or it's bullshit. They acknowledge that there is a situation."

Unfortunately, she says, it has also awakened some deep hatreds in people.

"I think they feel attacked because we're starting to touch something important I guess."

Margaret Evans reports from Paris on France's divisive #MeToo debate:

Like many countries, France has been grappling with a deeply divisive conversation about gender equality and sexual harassment sparked by the #MeToo movement, Margaret Evans reports from Paris. 7:14

About the Author

Margaret Evans

Europe correspondent

Margaret Evans is a correspondent based in the CBC News London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.