The Polanski protests have brought Frances #MeToo reckoning a step closer | Jess McHugh

The Polanski protests have brought Frances #MeToo reckoning a step closer | Jess McHugh

March 12, 2020 Off By WhoThatCelebsRS

As Adle Haenels walkout showed, younger feminists have no patience with the separate the artist from their art argument, says Paris-based writer Jess McHugh

The sexual abuse began when Adle Haenel was 12, she says. The alleged molestation and harassment at the hands of director Christophe Ruggia would continue for years. Haenel, 31, is now pressing charges. Last weekend, when Roman Polanski a director convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old girl won Frances highest award for directing, Haenel stood up and walked out of the ceremony. Shame! she shouted.

Polanskis latest film, An Officer and a Spy, came out in November, around the same time Haenel went public with her accusations against Ruggia. The combination of events, in addition to Polanskis recent accolades, sparked a fiery debate over both the state of the #MeToo movement in France and the enduring legacy of Polanski, now facing his sixth accusation of sexual abuse. The directors win at the Csars shocked observers both in France and around the world, coming less than a week after the felony rape conviction of Harvey Weinstein. A potent mix of cultural and generational differences begin to explain why France has not seen a similar reckoning around sexual assault in the film industry as the US and why Polanskis time might finally be up.

There is a #MeToo paradox in France, Haenel told the New York Times. It is one of the countries where the movement was the most closely followed on social media, but from a political perspective and in cultural spheres, France has completely missed the boat.

French actor Adle Haenel leaves the Csar awards after Roman Polanskis award. Photograph: Franois Durand/Getty Images

Part of whats at play is a generational divide. The #MeToo movement in France was soon followed by a countermovement where more than 100 women many of them older actors, such as Catherine Deneuve and Ingrid Caven signed an open letter denouncing it. The signees relied on the old-fashioned argument that a movement against inappropriate sexual behaviour somehow equalled a puritanical challenge to French sexual liberties. Many journalists and public figures condemned the letter that seemed to equate sexual violence with clumsy flirting. Prominent feminist leader Caroline De Haas said the letter reminded her of a tiresome uncle who doesnt understand what is happening. Since then, many French women have said that the #MeToo movement in their country has fallen short, and failed to catalyse any real change.

The same handwringing and warnings against feminist extremism resurfaced around the Polanski controversy. When asked about Polanski in an interview last weekend, French actor Isabelle Huppert tried to dodge the question. Huppert, 66, eventually responded by saying, Lynching is a type of pornography, citing William Faulkner although there does not seem to be any credible source that attributes such a phrase to the US writer.

Huppert was not alone. Fanny Ardant, 70, was among many actors to defend Polanski, highlighting a generational divide not only among women but within the film industry itself. The fact that theres been no real #MeToo reckoning among French film-makers seems less a product of their innocence than a reluctance of the old guard to shake up the status quo. Those who have rallied around Haenel Marion Cotillard, Vanessa Demouy and Nomie Merlant, to name a few are closer to her in age. Of course, not all older women condemn #MeToo just as not all young women support it, but the lines being drawn in France have increasingly landed around age.

Polanski supporters repeat a phrase: we can distinguish between the artist and his art. This justification appears all over the world, but there is an especially French insistence on separating the work of a public figure from his personal life. There are exceptions to the rule, but generally the French dont care about the personal lives of politicians, for instance even their presidents. Jacques Chirac, for instance, had a bevy of extramarital affairs. Franois Mitterrand had a love child. And Valry Giscard dEstaing crashed a Ferrari into a milk truck with a woman in the passengers seat who was not his wife.

Actor Fanny Ardant, 70, was among many actors to defend Roman Polanski, highlighting a generational divide not only among women but within the film industry itself. Photograph: Stephane Cardinale – Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

This separation between a public figures personal life and their work, while shocking to some outsiders, is not always a bad thing when it comes to avoiding the puritanical traps that persist elsewhere. Philandering is of course not a crime, but there is a tradition in the French public and press alike to ignore or briefly mock and then ignore the checkered personal lives of powerful men.

For certain men who achieve genius status in French culture, even Nazi collaboration isnt enough to dislodge them from their pedestal. Take, for instance, the writer Louis-Ferdinand Destouches, known as Cline. He was always a vocal antisemite, but new evidence shows that he reported at least seven Jewish people or Resistance members to the Nazi regime during the French occupation. He even carried out multiple missions for the Gestapo, according to Nazi officers. After a brief stint in prison and more bestselling books, Cline has posthumously remained a celebrated author and a mainstay on the French baccalaureate exam.

Polanskis defenders in France are numerous, and the theme of distinguishing the man from his art filled dozens of pages in magazines and newspapers as soon as his film came out. And yet this division of the artist and his work is something that young women increasingly refuse to put up with. Activists organised protests in front of cinemas screening Polanskis film and papered Paris with protest signs such as Polanski raped. You applauded.

The moment is ripe for feminism in France. French feminists have long been highly organised and remarkably quick at affecting institutional change, from abortion in the 1970s to a recent movement over femicide. France may have missed the boat on the first round of #MeToo, but a long overdue reckoning is now closer in sight.

Jess McHugh is a Paris-based journalist

Read more: