'For me, it goes too far': France grapples with #MeToo era

Some call it the latest case of American puritanism "far from French ways."

November 9, 2019, 5:15 AM

PARIS -- Reactions in France over the recent news of McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook being shown the door for being in a consensual relationship with an employee have been those of shock and dismay.

Some are calling it the latest case of American puritanism, "far from French ways," and reminding the French public that, at least in France, employees and bosses are free to date and protected by their right to privacy.

France is generally a very tolerant country when it comes to intimate relationships. The Paris Court of Appeal even recently acknowledged that an accident during sexual intercourse in the context of a business trip could be considered a workplace accident.

In the U.S., McDonald's decision to act was interpreted as the sign of a concern for workplace issues that have come to light in the #MeToo era. But in France, the company's rule not to date "employees who have a direct or indirect reporting relationship to each other" is seen as anti-freedom, including sexual freedom.

"For me, it goes too far," said Anne Rudisuhli, a psychotherapist who signed a letter with 99 other women defending men's "freedom to importune, indispensable to sexual freedom."

In the 1960s and '70s, the women's rights battles in France, such as the fight for contraception or the right to have an abortion, gave women full control of their bodies and determination over their sexual lives for the first time.

The sexual revolution became a way for French women to take part in a culture that had defined French society and, as such, allowed women to be operators rather than merely objects.

"The sexual question is magnified among some feminists," admitted Françoise Vergès, a political scientist and writer of "A Decolonial Feminism." "It is part of a certain tradition that magnifies the issue of sexual freedom as the place par excellence of freedom. ... It's the '70s really, the idea that in sex and sexuality they will find the heart of subversion."

PHOTO: McDonald's CEO Stephen Easterbrook unveils the company's new corporate headquarters during a grand opening ceremony on June 4, 2018, in Chicago.
McDonald's CEO Stephen Easterbrook unveils the company's new corporate headquarters during a grand opening ceremony on June 4, 2018, in Chicago.
Scott Olson/Getty Images, FILE

Therefore, to exclude sex from the workplace as a means of protecting women is perceived as an exclusion from the sexual realm that they fought so hard to have access to, thereby reducing them again to the status of objects who need protection from men.

"We are putting walls in places where it is not necessary," Rudisuhli said. "The sexuality of people does not concern the company. Women are big enough to know what they want. All women do not dream of marrying their boss. There is contempt for women as if we were venal and we need to protect them. It's contemptuous."

Rudisuhli voiced the concern that women in France risk being victimized in the wake of the #MeToo movement and reduced to an inferior position of needing protection, in the sexual realm as well as in the workplace. It is through this lens that many consider McDonald's rules to be patriarchal.

"I come back from the United States," said Rudisuhli, "and when I hear an old friend introduce me to her boyfriend, she tells me she found him via apps. Because today they can not meet any other way. In the workplace, it became too complicated."

For Margaux Collet, a consultant on gender issues in the workplace, this is a fantasy. She sees a tendency to caricature American behaviors regarding these issues in order to point to the United States as an extreme in order to preserve "French seduction, the rapports of coquetry, French gallantry."

"There really is an urban legend that in the U.S. we cannot take the elevator alone with a woman," Collet added.

For Vergès, this idea of courtly love in France is "a total construct," but "it's also part of a self-image that must be kept."

The French archetype of female freedom was recently promoted by a lingerie brand's campaign called "The French Liberté." On posters plastered on buses all over Paris, the free Frenchwoman is seen as white, thin and sexy in a bikini. She owns "French sexiness," as quoted in the advertising campaign.

These images, in effect, portray women as sexual beings, albeit as subjects instead of objects. As such, she is not expected to ask for her boss' demotion if he flirts with her, nor hide her newly freed body under a veil. This may also be one of the reasons for France's concern with hijab regulations. The woman in a hijab completely fails to satisfy the criteria of the free Frenchwoman.

PHOTO: French journalist Sandra Muller gives a press conference, in Paris, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019.
French journalist Sandra Muller gives a press conference, in Paris, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. A Paris court has ruled that the woman who launched the French version of the #MeToo movement must pay 20,000 euros ($22,000) in damages and fees for defaming the man she accused of harassment.
Thibault Camus/AP

If France's backlash over a #MeToo culture from across the pond can be seen as traditional and the ideal subject for cultural relativism, it can also show an ugly side, particularly in court.

While Time Magazine voted her "Person of the year" for starting her own #MeToo movement called #BalanceTonPorc and speaking out against a French TV executive she accused of sexual harassment, New York-based French journalist Sandra Muller was fined €28,000 ($30,800) for defamation in France in September. Thousands of women had used her hashtag to expose the people who sexually harassed or assaulted them.

On Nov. 6, French actress Adèle Haenel revealed in a French investigative newspaper that she had decided not to report a complaint for sexual harassment on account that "the judicial system ignores us."

She accused the director of the movie that she was in when she was between 12 and 15 years old of forcibly kissing her on the neck and touching her thighs and breasts. She spoke plainly of the "power relationship" and of "the hold" he had on her.

The testimony of the actress sent a shockwave through French cinema and led the Paris prosecutor to open an investigation on counts of "sexual assaults" and "sexual harassment." The award-winning actress confessed to French media Mediapart that only after watching the U.S. documentary "Leaving Neverland" did she decide to talk to a journalist.

"The issue of sexual harassment has been taken into account in the U.S. for much longer than in France. If McDonald's decision is so polemic in France on the issue, then it shows we still have a long way to go," Collet added.

Still, she doesn't believe that sanctioning relationships at work is a good idea: "It maintains the idea that there is a gray area between harassment and consent, when we are not on the same level. But it's an easy solution for companies to simply ban."

Instead, in France, she works at putting in place standards within companies for better reporting of harassment.

"There isn't a need for McDonald's regulations in France," Muller agreed. "Not because it is less puritan, but because of the existence of strong bodies within companies that are here to represent employee interests, contrary to the U.S., where courts are the first recourse, which companies seek to avoid."

She created WeWorkSafe, an NGO that encourages companies to enact training sessions and stronger alert procedures.

For Vergès, "we can only be in favor" of "resolutions that ensure that these power relations are not suffered," But she agrees that a ban is not enough to change cultural attitudes.

In the French militant movements, she sees suspicions about the systematic response to being sanctioned. Will the law finally solve everything? Is it going to change social relationships? Incarceration -- or in this case, a layoff -- may be a prop, not a long-term solution.

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