Is France the home of romance or a place of rampant sexual harassment?

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Is France the home of romance or a place of rampant sexual harassment?
Why has the #MeToo movement proved so divisive in France? Photo: AFP

BBC journalist Hélène Daouphars has travelled back to her home country to make a documentary about sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement in France. She explains why she picked that topic.


From my experience, France likes to present an image of itself as a place of cultural exception - refinement, gastronomy and excellence.

This image keeps the myth of ‘The French Woman’ alive in the minds of those abroad but also those at home. But who is this ‘French Woman’? She’s busy, working a full-time job, as well as having children at home, (but always slim, glamorous, and sexy)! No pressure…


BBC journalist Hélène Daouphars has made a documentary about sexual harassment in France. Photo BBC

But do French women really have it all?

In terms of abuse against women, the statistics in France aren’t good. According to a study for France’s High Council for Women's Equality in 2015, 100 per cent of women who use public transport in the Paris region say they have faced sexual harassment.

And according to another 2015 study by the Défenseur Des Droits institute 80 per cent of working women say they regularly face sexist decisions or attitudes at work - but 60 per cent decide not to say anything because they fear what consequences that could have on their careers.

Last August I was at work when I saw a video posted by a woman called Marie Laguerre on YouTube.

She had uploaded CCTV footage of walking past a café when she was cat-called by a man she didn’t know.

When she answered back to him, he punched her in the face. Just like that, in broad day light in a public place. Like many, I was shocked by what I saw.

However despite being shocked, perhaps because I am French, it didn’t seem that unusual to me. It was when I had this thought that it became clear that there was a story to tell here, about the story behind sexual harassment for women in a country known around the world for being the home of romance. 

Marie Laguerre, who posted online CCTV of herself being sexually harassed then physically attacked in the street. Photo: AFP

I started by looking back at how #MeToo had played out in France.

In 2017 when #MeToo spread around the world, it proved hugely popular in France, with thousands of French women using the hashtag #balancetonporc. But soon, using the hashtag became controversial for its vociferousness and created huge debate.

Some criticised the aggressive wording of the hashtag, and others disagreed with the call to name perpetrators.

A letter defending the right to flirt was signed by 100 French women, including the famous actress Catherine Deneuve and published in Le Monde, which shocked many and fuelled the controversy.

It struck me that in the USA, some of Hollywood’s big actresses had been at the forefront of the #MeToo outcry, but in France one of the nation’s most well-known women went the other way.

For me, this showed up the difference between France’s attitude to sexual harassment and that of the Anglophone world.

In making the documentary I spoke with women from across France, such as ex-presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, eminent historian Michelle Perrot, and the French journalist Sandra Muller, who started the #balancetonporc hashtag, to try and understand what’s going on in France.

Why was #MeToo so controversial in France? Was it lost in translation?  Or is there something else going on?

Not #MeToo, I'm French is on the BBC World Service at 2.30pm CET on Tuesday,  April 2nd 2019.

After the transmission time, it will also be available on catch-up.


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