In an open letter in Le Monde newspaper they claimed that the “witch-hunt” that has followed threatens sexual freedom and has prompted “a hatred of men and sexuality”.
“Rape is a crime but insistent or clumsy flirting is not, nor is gallantry a macho aggression,” said the letter signed by women including Catherine Millet, author of the explicit 2002 memoir 'The Sexual Life of Catherine M' and French actress Catherine Robbe-Grillet.
Unsurprisingly, it didn't take long for French feminists including rights groups, politicians, activists, as well as the public to hit back at the actress best known for her role as a bored housewife who spends her afternoons as a prostitute in Luis Bunuel classic 1967 film, “Belle du Jour”.
Militant French feminist Caroline De Haas responded to the letter with her own which was co-signed by 30 activists.
“The women who signed the letter in Le Monde are for the most part repeat offenders in the defense of pedophiles and apologists for rape.
“They are once again using their media visibility to trivialize sexual violence. They hold contempt for the millions of women who are suffering or have suffered violence,” said De Haas.
The feminists' letter responded to specific points in the original for example the worry that the current wave of feminism “risks going too far”.
“As soon as the equality advances, even half a millimeter, good souls immediately alert us to the fact that we risk falling into excess. Excess, we are right in it. It is the world in which we live. In France, every day, hundreds of thousands of women are victims of harassment. Tens of thousands of sexual assaults. And hundreds of rapes. Every day,” the feminists said.
And to the suggestion that flirting doesn't count as sexual aggression, they had their answer ready.
“The signatories of the letter deliberately confuse a relationship of seduction, based on respect and pleasure, with violence.”
“This is not a difference between flirting and harassing but a difference in nature. Violence is not 'heightened seduction'.”
French feminist collective Osez le Feminisme also responded to the letter with outrage, tweeting: “Revolting. In the face of current awareness, women are defending the impunity of the aggressors and attack feminists.”
Spokesperson for the group Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu said in an interview with BFM TV: “What a shame! What a mess! There are so many more important things to do at this moment — more solidarity!”
She went on to say that the contrast between the letter and “Time's Up” — the movement against sexual harassment founded in 2018 in response to the Weinstein effect and #MeToo — was terribly cruel.
Also on Twitter, the former Minister of Women's Rights Laurence Rossignol regretted “this strange dread of no longer existing without the gaze and desire of men” which “drives intelligent women to write huge nonsense.”
French politician and prominent member of the Socialist Party Ségolène Royal also joined the wave of criticism, expressing her disappointment at Deneuve.
“Too bad our great Catherine Deneuve is part of this appalling letter,” tweeted Royal , addressing her “thoughts to victims of sexual violence, crushed by the fear of talking about it.”
For some however, the letter merely highlighted the difference between “Anglo Saxon” feminism and “French feminism”, which was tweeted by French writer Agnes Poirier (see below).
Poirier later added: “Am rather against 'the right to pester', however, many good arguments in 100 French women’s public letter.”
And reaction to the letter wasn't confined to France, with people around the world stepping in to condemn (and some praise) the words of the 100 high profile French women.
Italian actress, singer, model, and director Asia Argento, one of the early accusers of Weinstein tweeted: “Catherine Deneuve and other French women tell the world how their interiorized misogyny has lobotomized them to the point of no return”.
The #Metoo campaign began in the US in response to the plethora of abuse allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein and was quickly copied in France, where many women used the #Balancetonporc (expose your pig) hashtag to share tales of harassment.
But for the signatories of the letter, “Instead of helping women, this frenzy to send these (male chauvinist) 'pigs' to the abattoir actually helps the enemies of sexual liberty — religious extremists and the worst sort of reactionaries,” the collective of women who signed the letter said.
Author of 'The Sexual Life of Catherine M', Catherine Millet. Photo: AFP
At the end of October Deneuve made her position clear on the recent wave of allegations and the campaign which followed.
“I do not think it's the most appropriate way to get things moving,” she said. “I find that the terms being used are very excessive. I really don't think it will solve the problem.”
“After 'Calling our your pig' what are we going to have, 'Call our your whore?'” she said.
Deneuve sparked an outcry last March for her fulsome support of French-based director Roman Polanski, who is still wanted in the United States for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
While his victim Samantha Geimer wants the case dropped so she can get on with her life, Deneuve told French television that “she always found the word 'rape' excessive” in the circumstances.
The French broadcasting watchdog later called her comments “retrograde”.
“We can not flirt anymore.” The signatories of the tribune deliberately mix a relationship of seduction, based on respect and pleasure, with violence. To mix everything is very practical. This puts everything in the same bag. Basically, if the harassment or aggression is “heavy drag” is that it is not so serious. The signatories are wrong. This is not a difference in degree between dragging and harassing but a difference in nature. Violence is not “increased seduction”. On one side, we consider the other as his equal, respecting his desires, whoever they are. On the other, as an object available, without making any case of his own wishes or his consent.