PARIS • Actress Catherine Deneuve joined more than 100 other Frenchwomen on Tuesday in arguing in a public letter that men should be free to hit on women, and denouncing the #metoo campaign against sexual harassment as "puritanism" fuelled by a "hatred of men".
In the aftermath of accusations against American movie producer Harvey Weinstein, millions of women took to social media to share their stories of being sexually harassed or assaulted, using the #metoo hashtag worldwide or #balancetonporc ("squeal on your pig") in France.
"Rape is a crime. But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression," the letter, dated Monday and published in the newspaper Le Monde on Tuesday, begins.
"As a result of the Weinstein affair, there has been a legitimate realisation of the sexual violence women experience, particularly in the workplace, where some men abuse their power. It was necessary. But now this liberation of speech has been turned on its head."
The Frenchwomen - including Catherine Millet, author of the hugely explicit memoir, The Sexual Life Of Catherine M - contend that the #metoo movement has led to a campaign of public accusations that have placed undeserving people in the same category as sex offenders without giving them a chance to defend themselves.
"This expedited justice already has its victims - men prevented from practising their profession as punishment or forced to resign - while the only thing they did wrong was touching a knee, trying to steal a kiss or speaking about intimate things at a work dinner or sending messages with sexual connotations to a woman whose feelings were not mutual," they write.
One argument the writers make is that instead of empowering women, the #metoo and #balancetonporc movements serve the interests of "the enemies of sexual freedom and of religious extremists" and of those who believe that women are separate beings and children with the appearance of adults, demanding to be protected".
They write that "a woman can, in the same day, lead a professional team and enjoy being the sexual object of a man, without being a 'promiscuous woman' nor a vile accomplice of patriarchy".
They believe that the scope of the two movements represses sexual expression and freedom.
After describing requests from publishers to make male characters "less sexist" and a Swedish bill that will require people to give explicit consent before engaging in sexual activity, the women write: "One more effort and two adults who will want to sleep together will first check, through an app on their mobile phone, a document in which the practices they accept and those they refuse will be duly listed."
They continue: "The philosopher, Ruwen Ogien, defended the freedom to offend as essential to artistic creation. In the same way, we defend a right to pester, which is vital to sexual freedom."
Although the writers do not draw clear lines between what constitutes sexual misconduct and what does not, they say they are "sufficiently far-seeing not to confuse a clumsy come-on and sexual assault".
Translations of the letter were quickly picked up by Twitter on Tuesday and responses ranged from supportive to hostile.
Italian actress Asia Argento, who accused Weinstein of raping her, criticised the Frenchwomen's letter on Twitter.
"Catherine Deneuve and other Frenchwomen tell the world how their interiorised misogyny has lobotomised them to the point of no return," Argento wrote.
On the other side of the spectrum, American scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, who coined the term "victim feminism", tweeted a quote from the letter and her remarks on it.
In concluding the letter, the writers return to the concept of self-victimisation and a call for women to accept the pitfalls that come with freedom.
"Accidents that can affect a woman's body do not necessarily affect her dignity and, must not, as hard as they can be, necessarily make her a perpetual victim," they write.
"Because we are not reducible to our bodies. Our inner freedom is inviolable. And this freedom that we cherish is not without risks and responsibilities."
NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS