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Hero of French fathers, or 'macho misogynist'?

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Serge Charnay, waving from a 43-metre crane in Nantes, on February 17th, the third day of his protest to reclaim the right to visit his estranged son. Photo: Frank Perry/AFP
20:56 CET+01:00
A desperate, loving father kept from his son, or a manipulative, abusive attention-seeker? Either way, it was impossible to ignore his dramatic four-day protest in Nantes from Friday to Monday. Meet Serge Charnay, our French Face of the Week.

Who's Serge Charnay?

Serge Charnay is a 42-year-old man from Nantes in western France who spent three nights and four days suspended on a crane this week, to protest for the right to visit his six-year-old son Benoit.

Tell me more.

Well, Charnay has been engaged in a bit of a one-man mission for the last 18 months, after he was accused of kidnapping his son in 2011, and denied all visitation rights since then. When he and wife got divorced in 2009, a family court gave Charnay custody of Benoit on one out of every three weekends. But in 2011 Charnay took his son to Ardèche, a picturesque region of south-central France, but didn’t bring him back for two whole months. He had already been warned after a similar incident in 2010 and his ex-wife accused him of kidnapping Benoit. Charnay lost all custody rights and was later sentenced to a year in prison, and served four months, for threatening his ex-wife and attacking her father.

So what happened this week?

Last Friday morning, February 15th, Charnay climbed a 43-metre crane in Nantes, unfurled a banner reading “Benoit – two years without his dad”, and painted “Save our children from the courts” onto the front of the crane itself.

He refused to come down until a meeting had been held between France’s justice minister Christiane Taubira, and a number of organizations dedicated to the rights of fathers. Charnay sent intermittent texts to the media, and held phone conversations with journalists on live TV. He declined offers of food, water and medicine, but for a few hours on Saturday he did have the company of his friend Nicolas Moreno, another father seeking custody of his two sons.

How did it all end?

Well, on Monday a meeting did take place between Minister for Justice Christiane Taubira, Minister for Families Dominique Bertinotti, and a few fathers’ rights organizations, primarily two groups called SOS Papa (‘SOS Dad’) and SVP Papa (‘Please, Dad’).

The meeting didn’t resolve the problems of French parental custody laws – France Inter radio called it ‘stormy and disappointing’ – but it was enough to persuade Serge Charnay to descend from the crane which had, for one week, become France’s most photographed structure.

What has the reaction been like in France toward Serge Charnay?

Sharply divided. Over the weekend, there was a lot of sympathy for him, and the ‘courage’ of his dramatic gesture. He had the backing of the SVP Papa group, for example. However, as revelations began to emerge on Sunday and Monday about Charnay’s past legal violations, and a possible propensity towards violence, the tone of media reports began to shift.


Photo: Charnay at an SVP Papa protest in Nantes on February 20th. Frank Perry/AFP

Some have associated Charnay with an anti-feminist, or even misogynist streak within the fathers’ rights movement, and the wider ‘masculinist’ movement. On Tuesday, a video emerged on the internet of SVP Papa members from the north of France singing a song with crude, vulgar lyrics and the chorus “toutes les femmes puent, il n’y a que les hommes qui sentent bon” (literally, “all women stink, only men smell good.”)

As soon as he came down from the crane on Monday afternoon, Charnay launched an attack on what he called “the women who govern us.” One of them, family minister Dominique Bertinotti responded by saying, “I can’t prevent misogynistic, macho opinions – there are too many of them out there,” according to weekly magazine L’Express.

What’s been the impact of his actions this week?

He has started a debate in France – about parental custody in particular, and the rights and roles of men and women, in general. It has since been revealed for example that in France, 72% of divorces result in sole custody of children for the mother. On Wednesday, L’Express posed the question, “Serge Charnay: tearful father, or masculinist figurehead?”

He has also inspired other men to similar protests. On Saturday night an estranged father in the western town of Saintes climbed on to the roof of his apartment in protest, and threatened to jump off, before safely descending at 1am. The next morning, yet another father, who had been denied contact with his son for three years, scaled a crane in Strasbourg and stayed there for two hours.

What one moment sums him up?

Story continues below…

It has to be his descent – to sparse applause – from the crane in Nantes on Monday afternoon. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either a tragic moment of delusional self-defeat, a triumphant illustration of one man’s love for his child, or the inevitable end of a manipulative misogynist’s 15 minutes of fame.

What do others say about him?

“Serge Charnay is solely responsible for the breakdown of his parental rights, and his so-called fight mustn’t be confused with that of the many fathers who are unjustly kept away from their children,” Sandrine Caron, lawyer for Charnay’s ex-wife was quoted as saying in French daily Le Monde.

What does he have to say for himself?

“What annoys me most is that the cause of dads is not heard, and that the women who govern us make fun of us. We’re going to have fight them even harder. These lovely ladies still think we can’t change a baby’s nappy or take care of them,” Charnay was quoted as saying in Rue 89.
 

The Local's 'French face of the week' is a person in the news who - for good or ill - has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as French face of the week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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