My introduction to French feminism took place at the dinner table, when my host father nonchalantly asked me what I thought about Catherine Deneuve’s statement. Reluctantly, I had to admit that I had no idea who Deneuve was and what the fuss was all about.
Although I had been closely following allegations of sexual harassment in American media since the Weinstein scandal broke, it had not occurred to me that the French may be paying attention. It wasn’t until French actress Catherine Deneuve and 99 other prominent French women published an open letter in Le Monde on January 9 condemning the puritanical excesses of the #metoo movement as a witch hunt and defending men’s “right to bother” women (an imperfect translation of the French liberté d’importuner) that I realized the sexual harassment conversation was as relevant here as in the United States.
For weeks after its publication, the letter and the questions it raised about sexual freedom and sexual abuse seemed to be the only topic of conversation in the headlines and in the classroom. One professor assigned us an in-class essay on “masculine domination,” revealing that he had #metoo and Deneuve in mind when choosing the topic. French public opinion divided, when some public figures accused Deneuve of being privileged and out-of-touch as others applauded her for resisting censorship and cultural revisionism. The one sentiment that united all parties, on French public airwaves and at the dinner table, was the belief that French culture creates a feminism which is distinct from its American counterpart.
So, does being a woman feel different in France? The first gender-related particularity that struck me during my first days in Bordeaux was the fact that, in nearly all restaurants, women are always served first. The act is so subtle that I may have remained entirely oblivious had a friend not remarked that he had not received his food while two girls, who had ordered an identical dish, were happily munching away. Every dining ritual—from pouring wine to delivering dishes to sometimes even taking the order—takes place in accordance with this unspoken rule.
In public transport, men ranging from 10 to 70 have offered me their seat (which I happily accepted) and held open doors for me. When asked about this phenomenon, my French friends have a simple explanation: “It’s the polite thing to do.”
While the polite thing to do in the United States is to blind yourself to gender, never assuming that a woman may be more delicate or require special attention, French women seem not to find anything sexist in such small acts of chivalry.
Such deference is said to instill greater respect for women, yet France is not without its problems in the gender department. On average, French women earn 24 percent less than men and only hold 38 percent of parliamentary seats, even as 84,000 of them experience rape or attempted rape annually, with only 765 men convicted for this crime every year. As in America, I have been catcalled multiple times irrespective of location and time of day, after our study abroad coordinator warned us that some unwanted sexual advances were simply a fact of life here.
Nonetheless, local governments are beginning to introduce commendable policies to address the safety and security of French women. Here in Bordeaux, the public transportation system recently allowed passengers to request that the driver drop them off at a particular address along or near the bus route rather than at a designated bus stop. Going into effect at 10:00 p.m. every night, the policy was designed to help women feel safer when commuting home. The transportation authorities also conducted a publicity campaign to educate the public about sexual harassment and “manspreading” in the tramways.
French critiques of the American approach don’t at all suggest that French feminists are less invested in their fight for equality. In fact, France outpaces the United States on questions like maternity leave, social welfare, and government representation. But the rhetoric surrounding gender sounds less confrontational here. In 1947, describing her visit to the United States, Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “Relations between men and women in America are one of permanent war.” That perception holds true today as the French, even in casual conversations, approach American feminist initiatives cautiously, wary of potential excesses.
It’s through conversations like this that I’ve come to appreciate the French tradition of well-balanced intellectual debate—which turns every dinner into a match of argumentative prowess—that permeates both politics and daily life.