Shitty Men du Jour

France’s literary #MeToo

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If in America the #MeToo movement came to be associated with prominent, highly paid actresses, the face of the new feminism in France is that of an adolescent between the ages of eleven and fifteen. She does not tell her story on Twitter or Instagram; she does not go to the press. Instead, she writes a book about two hundred pages long, laying out with a vengeance the way adults acted around her, covering up or ignoring the abuse she faced. She does this in retrospect—the woman as author reclaiming the experience of the mute child as victim.

These two avatars exemplify the different forms the movement has taken in France and the United States. In the States, the focus was on the right to work without being abused or harassed. Part of the horror in listening to the powerful women who came forward was that despite their status, they were still at the mercy of the boss. In France, highly paid women simply did not garner sympathy. When Sand Van Roy came forward in May 2018, she appeared to be the first actress to speak to French police in the aftermath of #MeToo. The man she accused of rape, the director Luc Besson, nevertheless retained his standing, and cultural commentators gleefully came to his defense. A year after the start of the movement, no major figure had fallen in France, and media coverage of Harvey Weinstein tended to focus more on his financial power and avarice than on the nature of his crimes. It was believed that gallantry and a disdain for capitalistic greed—both favorite topics used by traditionalists to stipulate the French “exception”—had spared the country from a similar crisis.

And then, in January 2020, Vanessa Springora published Consent, detailing how she met the writer Gabriel Matzneff when she was thirteen and he was forty-nine. At the time, those in Matzneff’s entourage told Springora—and she believed—that their ensuing “relationship” would form her literary and sexual awakening; she reassured her mother and even complained to a doctor about the painful sex, prompting him to make a vaginal incision. Matzneff, meanwhile, carefully transcribed their arguments for his future books, appropriating her subjectivity in order to better narrate her story from his point of view. While Philippe Sollers of Gallimard published Matzneff’s “carnets noirs” (diaries recording his sex life) until 2007, no one, apparently, bothered to ask questions about what had happened to Springora or the other adolescents fastidiously catalogued like collectors’ items.

Most of the #MeToo stories that surfaced in France in the wake of Consent have no mogul figures, no shitty men lists, no bosses forcing NDAs on their victims, as is the case in the States. They take place instead in the cover of the home, and the primary witness and accomplice to the abuse is often the victim’s mother. (I have wondered in my darker moods whether or not this explains why this narrative became the acceptable one here: there’s still a woman to blame.) No matter the reasons for why Springora’s book hit the nerve it did, when the minister of justice Eric Dupond-Moretti declared in March that “children should not be harmed,” it was a statement that would have been unimaginable just two years ago.

It is only fitting that of the two memoirs defining #MeToo in France, one deals with literature, and the other deals with the law.

If the social unit at the center of France’s #MeToo has been the family, it’s also true that family can mean much more than mothers, fathers, and siblings. This was illustrated by Camille Kouchner’s La familia grande (“the big family”), another sensation upon its publication in January. Unlike Springora, Kouchner does not write as the direct victim but as an onlooker to the devastation wreaked in her twin brother’s life when their stepfather, the prominent legal scholar and political scientist Olivier Duhamel, started visiting his room during the afternoon nap. (Kouchner and her brother were about fourteen at the time.) Three days before the book’s publication, Duhamel stepped down from his posts as president of the National Foundation of Political Sciences and Le Siècle, a kind of dinner-club think tank for the who’s who of France. The twins’ late mother, Évelyne Pisier, had been a celebrated law professor and feminist. With Kouchner’s descriptions of idyllic vacations spent alongside politicians and key figures of the intelligentsia, what becomes clear is that family indicates a certain class apart. She does not name names but implies that members of this elite—including those overseeing the French justice system—enabled Duhamel’s unchecked power.

Inside Jobs

Both Consent and La familia grande could be classified as inside jobs. Springora, forty-nine, is the head of the publishing house Éditions Julliard. Camille Kouchner, forty-six, teaches law at the Sorbonne. It is only fitting that of the two memoirs defining #MeToo in France, one deals with literature, and the other deals with the law—two institutions responsible for naming and accounting for the ambiguities of physical experience. Their authors have witnessed the workings of power and its conditioning in language, and both used the tools of their professions to take down the systems that silenced them.

Springora weaponizes literature, her former prison. “A glass wall has been erected between [books] and me. I know they can be poison,” she writes, referring to the way Matzneff reproduced her letters in his own autobiographical books. He believed her descriptions of what they did in bed, and how much she “loved” him, served as proof that she was with him of her own free will. Her double vision of past bewilderment and present-day revenge overflows with grief and anger, but the language used to describe Springora’s memories stays cold and level, a vessel for the otherwise uncontainable. After she realizes Matzneff’s lying to her about seeing other girls, she writes that “I only had myself to blame”—before telling us that she then “hoisted a leg over the window balustrade and prepared to jump.” Instead of prescribing feelings for the reader, Springora reaches for gesture and action, describing what might have resulted in her suicide as if observing a bystander. By committing her experiences to the cultural record, she sought to “ensnare the hunter in his own trap, ambush him within the pages of a book”—just like Matzneff did to her.

In order to understand the book, it’s important to know that besides the title, the word consent makes few appearances in Springora’s description of her childhood and adolescence (two, by my count). The first instance is when she plays “guilty games” with her cousins, one blindfolded player exposed to the touch of various objects—feathers, scraps of fabric. Then there’s the time Matzneff tells Springora that in the case of Roman Polanski, well, obviously the girl consented. The term is effectively defined for the teenage Springora by others, without ever allowing her the possibility of saying no. Some French critics, such as Jean-Louis Jeannelle at Le Monde, continue to read the book with the assumption that Springora did, in fact, consent to both anal and vaginal sex with Matzneff. French penal law would not have her apply the word at all. In France, rape has been defined by the use of violence, threat, surprise, or constraint—without mention of consent. This is the case in most European countries; the American model proves the exception rather than the rule.

Forbidden to Forbid

Kouchner’s La Familia grande lacks Consent’s narrative control, as if written in a hurry, as if there was an urgency in getting it all down on the page. Where Springora’s narrative uses fairy tales as an organizing metaphor—Matzneff the prince charming-turned-ogre—Kouchner works with biblical imagery, implicitly reclaiming the right to judge both herself and her family. She describes her silence as a serpent circled around her throat, slowly squeezing the life from both herself and her relatives. “In our silences, our exchanged glances, the snake bites down,” she writes. “The burning in the pit of my stomach, this constant torture, turns my existence into an agony.” This response, akin to a survival instinct, compels her to stop going on family vacations when her children and her twin brother’s children begin to approach adolescence. (Springora also cites her son coming of age as one reason for coming forward about Matzneff.)

At first, I wondered about the title of La familia grande, which displaces the focus of Kouchner’s book from Paris to Sanary-sur-Mer, where Duhamel and his clan went on vacation; from the seat of power to the dinner conversations that happened in the off-hours. But maintaining this distinction between the public and the personal is exactly what allowed Duhamel’s abuse to go unchallenged. If Paris was for pontificating on the constitution, the house at Sanary was where former 1968 rebels, now enmeshed in the Socialist Party, made the catchphrase “it is forbidden to forbid” into a law of its own.

Kouchner lists all the counterarguments, the rhetorical sleights of hands and citations from the canon, that were used to belittle “puritanism” and “prudishness” in this circle: “Sartre and Beauvoir,” “Foucault and punishment,” “never tell, never condemn anyone in a society in which we’re all unfairly treated.” When she approaches her mother about her stepfather playing footsie with one of the guests, she is told that “fucking is our freedom.” Her mother’s feminism was about liberated sexuality more than anything else; only those who didn’t know what was good for them said “no.”

I was familiar with the events recounted in La familia grande before picking it up; I also knew the definition of rape under French law, and I study its history. Still, my stomach turned when she cites the penal code in order to make explicit her stepfather’s crime and the fact that, no matter his supposed radicalism, he understood what was punishable under law. “You’re a law professor. You’re a lawyer. You know all too well that you’ll get away with it,” she writes, using the slurred casual address T’es, usually reserved for one’s most intimate acquaintances. I had never seen this form mixed with the formal verbosity of French legal language.

While there have been several #MeToo-related memoirs in France, hers initiated a national debate for the way it speaks the seeming unspeakability of incest. She quotes the language used to diminish her and her brother’s experience—when confronted, their stepfather claimed he “regretted” his actions, but “there was no sodomy. Fellatio is still very different,” as her mother told her—as if reversing a hex, reclaiming her right to use words as she wants and intends.

Dictatorship of Emotions

Still, such acts of reclamation are fraught: language can also misrepresent embodied vulnerabilities. Barthes once said of the Marquis de Sade that the world of his sex-drenched novels is one “deeply penetrated by speech” in which “there is never anything real.” A lot of French libertine literature, with its hyperbole and legions of sexual partners, reads as if written with the intention of overriding not only physical and psychological limits but the body itself.

When the characters of such novels speak, they do not always say what they mean. In a historical context in which a woman’s virginity was fetishized, her “no” is not interpreted as a real no, but a necessary defense of her virtue, as the scholar Hélène Merlin-Kajman reminds us in La littérature à l’heure de #MeToo (“literature in the age of #MeToo”). “I am in the habit of teaching my university students, after having taught them in middle school, that literature must not be read literally, that it is not made for that,” she writes, in a diatribe against the American predilection for overly simplistic readings and the politicization of texts. The issue of consensual sex has thus often been presented in France as a problem of language and interpretation rather violence or coercion. Matzneff once gloated over an anonymous open letter he wrote in defense of pedophiles who had taken pornographic photos of thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds, saying, “I carefully weighed each noun, each verb, each adjective, each comma, each semicolon”—as if somehow his care for syntax and punctuation might make his victims feel better.

In 2018, a law was put forward, part of which sought to instate a clause for statutory rape; the Council of State, France’s version of the Supreme Court, advised against setting a firm legal age of consent. (Though the penal code interdicted sex with children under fifteen, this act was not necessarily considered rape unless use of force could be proven; historically, no distinction has been made between the definition of rape for children and adults.) The Council deemed the proposed law “unconstitutional” in that it did not respect the presumption of a defendant’s innocence, and “incoherent” because what might be considered sexual aggression could now also be considered rape—though presumably, the whole point of the law’s introduction was to change the one to the other. A version of the law did go into effect, but without the clause that would have established a minimum age of consent. Two highly publicized court cases brought the decision under attack. Both involved eleven-year-old girls who came forward with rape charges that initially did not stick, with judges and a jury deciding that they had consented to performing fellatio and sex at various points in the proceedings. (These initial charges have been modified, and one aggressor has since been condemned for rape.)

The French #MeToo had to be literary.

Despite the French elite’s education in the democratic principles of liberty, fraternity, and equality, certain high-powered individuals seem incapable of relating to those who move through society and experience its risks differently than they do. In these contexts, empathy for the victim is discouraged because it can too easily give way to the “dictatorship of emotions” associated with American populism and religious fervor. No, these issues must be considered rationally, the thinking goes, without questioning the conclusions to which such reasoning sometimes leads. Theoretical rigor is no doubt why French government structures are more forgiving toward the economically disadvantaged, the principle being that everyone deserves the same basic necessities, no exceptions. But this same idea falls apart when an individual in specific circumstances—especially a minor—diverges in their needs from those of the abstract “universal” subject. With this insistence on absolute equality, the kind of terror experienced by a child of eleven, for example, never enters the public sphere, resulting in a systemic oppression of those who do not have the legal, rhetorical, or material tools to defend themselves. According to judge Marie-Pierre Porchy, writing in Les silences de la loi (“The Law’s Silence”), almost a third of all court cases with a jury in France involve the rape of children.

Sometimes when reading the Anglo-American press, I am given the impression that all French men are pedophiles, and all French women enablers. This, of course, is not the case. But there is a way of dividing words from the fragility of bodies that does seem culturally specific. In the United States, first-person narratives and the display of televised emotions have inundated us with the feelings of others, “tempting many [in France] . . . to see in this theater a pure spectacle, a parody of democracy, a sinister distraction,” as sociologist Eric Fassin has noted. Yet it is precisely such theater that has allowed a certain recognition that affect belongs in the political arena, informing the way we think about rights.

In France, the sector of the population able to express themselves on public platforms is much more constricted, reserved almost exclusively for career politicians and the highly educated, who speak in the abstractions and with the verbose reasoning taught in the classrooms of the elite. Vanessa Springora and Camille Kouchner could not just have broadcast their messages in a few short sentences on Twitter or relayed the events of their trauma to the press. They needed to have undergone the training necessary to articulate their experiences in the accepted vernacular. And their abusers needed to hold power not through wealth, but through political and cultural affiliations, in order to strike the system at its heart.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Some do not think these women have the right to strike anything at all. During an appearance in September 2017, just before the start of #MeToo, Christine Angot, a writer known for her autofictional work, stated that sexual violence needed to be treated “with humanity” rather than in feminist or activist terms. According to Angot, allowing survivors to speak to their experiences by “collecting” or “welcoming” their testimony would reduce the verbal skillset needed to articulate such a “humanity.” Confronted by a woman who wanted to use her story of workplace harassment to change things, Angot categorically responded that politics will never provide solutions: the only way to move forward is just to deal with it alone. Many French women of her generation—she’s sixty-two—would agree.

The issue of consensual sex has often been presented in France as a problem of language and interpretation.

Angot has spoken about both the affaires Matzneff and Duhamel, as they are called, repeating the idea that the opening of the discussion surrounding sexual abuse betrays the complexity of the experience, albeit in a more restrained tone. She is herself—though she would refuse the title—a victim of incestuous sexual abuse, recounting in her 1999 work L’Inceste (translated in 2017) how her father started raping her at the age of fourteen. Despite the fact that Angot’s photograph graces the paperback edition, in L’Inceste she addresses the public as a novelist, not the former adolescent who was sodomized by her dad after snack time. In this account and in others, she never raises the question of the law, or the fact that until 2016, incest was not officially interdicted by French penal code. She believes her case to be hers alone and so, refusing to belong to a statistic, she turns her experience into a work of autofiction rather than memoir—a world where Angot the teenager can become a character in Angot the writer’s work. There is inevitably a gap between written and lived experience, but in France this tends to be used to reflect on the “universal” rather than the particular, on violence in general rather than what happened to a teenage girl—and what might happen to others like her.

In France, autofiction has long been used as an alibi. Proust, the genre’s legendary inventor, asked that the work of art be considered separately from the life of the artist. This is how Matzneff defended himself when it came to his seductions of teenagers (girls in Paris; boys during his trips to the Philippines) under the age of sixteen. He claimed that judgment should be made not on his acts but on his literary accomplishments. When Denise Bombardier called him a sexual criminal on national television in 1990, he replied that this proves she “never actually read his book”; to Matzneff, her accusation demonstrated her literary rather than his ethical failing.

Others have followed suit. In 2013, the memoir of May 1968 icon Daniel Cohn-Bendit resurfaced, in which he recounts sexual experiences with children as young as five. He responded that it was just a rhetorical device used to upset the bourgeoisie. Former Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand retorted in a similar way when passages of his autofictional work, The Bad Life, emerged in which he writes of sexual tourism in Thailand that the “rituals of slave and ephebe markets turn me on a lot.” If he called the prostitutes he frequented jeunes garçons (“young boys”), it was a term of endearment, he claimed, rather than a description of their actual ages. In these cases and others, those accused deflect what is leveled against them by replying that the accuser has not read au second degré, with enough distance, irony, or insight into the words on the page.

This is why the French #MeToo had to be literary, a reworking of the way words identify their referents. It explains why Springora, while supportive of the political energy initiated by her book, gives interviews on the condition that she discusses her book as a work of literature, frequently pausing mid-sentence to find le mot juste. There are other variations of #MeToo in France, most prominently the rise of lesbian feminists and the “Colleuses,” a grassroots group responsible for posters around Paris displaying messages about sexual violence. A select cadre of actresses have likewise spoken out about sexual harassment. But the sea change, the language used both to defend and represent these iterations of the movement in the mainstream, comes from Consent and La familia grande.

By identifying their testimonies as what happened to them in the flesh, Springora and Kouchner broke the division in French culture between language and lived experience, a barrier safeguarded by the slippery category of autofiction and the elevation of art over the quotidian. To American readers, their accounts might appear discreet; Springora calls Matzneff “G.,” and Kouchner only uses first names. In interviews, both writers have framed this restraint as providing a chance for readers to identify with the story, with no famous identities explicitly attached.

While the catalyst these testimonies provided has rightfully been welcomed by many feminists impatient to see #MeToo take effect in France, it could be argued that widespread acceptance of these narratives is in fact a reflection of the current political moment, falling in line with Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government’s swing to the right. The focus on children—traditionally taken up by family-values conservatives—has appealed to both the younger left and the older right, taking aim at the Socialist Party, now in ruins. And the fight for minors’ rights has in some ways masked gender inequality; while most people have united behind the idea that children cannot consent to sex, adult women are still a way’s off from being taken seriously when presenting themselves as under the power of their aggressors.

Still, there is now a law in France, passed in the National Assembly with a unanimous vote on April 15, that distinguishes the rape of a minor from that of an adult, nullifying underage victims’ responsibility to prove they consented. Politicians who supported the bill cited both books and acknowledged that La familia grande was instrumental in the insertion of the incest clause. Prosecutors have opened inquiries into both Matzneff and Duhamel, even though too much time has passed for these men to be prosecuted. Literature asked for justice where it was impossible within the existing legal system. It remains to be seen whether Springora’s and Kouchner’s testimonies have sufficiently swayed public opinion so that other kinds of victims will have the same chance to tell their stories.

Madison Mainwaring has contributed to the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, and The Economist, among other publications. She is a PhD candidate in French at Yale. 

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