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Struggle Over Sexual Abuse Accusations Divides French Feminists


PARIS — They seemed like natural allies. Both are women in the male-dominated world of French politics. Both partners in the leftist alliance governing Paris. Both feminists.

But the two women have come to define the competing strains of French feminism from different generations and recently found themselves at opposite ends of an old-fashioned political brawl.

Anne Hidalgo, 61, the second-term mayor of Paris regularly mentioned as a future presidential contender, embodies a tradition of French feminism that fights for the rights of women within the legal framework in keeping with the country’s universalist values like equality and liberty.

Alice Coffin, 42, a freshly elected city councilor and longtime feminist activist, is a part of France’s newest wave of feminism, which places the issue of violence against women at the core of the movement and is not afraid to take on a powerful, entrenched male establishment.

Their most recent flash point was Christophe Girard, a feared power broker in Paris who was the mayor’s deputy for culture and became a focus of controversy this year for his longstanding support of Gabriel Matzneff, the writer celebrated by a certain French elite despite openly acknowledging that he engaged in sex with teenage girls and prepubescent boys.

For Ms. Coffin, dislodging Mr. Girard from power lay at the heart of her feminism. For months, Ms. Hidalgo defended Mr. Girard, even after Ms. Coffin and other feminists pressed him to step down as deputy mayor in late July, distancing herself only after reported fresh accusations that he had sexually abused a teenage boy years ago. Mr. Girard denied the accusations, and is now under investigation by prosecutors.

The case has reignited a fierce debate over feminism in France, a country where the #MeToo movement was slow to take off, but where women like Ms. Coffin have made other feminists increasingly uneasy by seeking to publicly confront men suspected of abuse.

“We’re targeting powerful men, which goes over badly in France,” Ms. Coffin said. “It’s a new step — it’s different from the feminism that was practiced before.”

The mayor’s tweets — defending her deputy and singling out Ms. Coffin and another councilwoman for criticism — led to such an avalanche of threats against Ms. Coffin that she was placed under police protection for 15 days.

Ms. Hidalgo declined interview requests for this article.

“The Girard affair has been a point of crystallization,” Camille Froidevaux-Metterie, a leading feminist philosopher, said. In her view, it dramatized the main divide in French feminism today: “the tensions between feminists who’ve made the fight against sexual violence the real heart of their struggle” and a political feminist establishment that has exhibited “relative deafness” to those aspirations.

Inspired by #MeToo, younger feminists have led the charge against Mr. Girard who, to them, represented an old order that sanctioned, or at the very least turned a blind eye to, the abuse of women. To them, traditional feminists were sometimes complicit.

“A pillar of feminism today is to listen to victims and to call into question the impunity of aggressors or possible aggressors, and how the justice system treats them,” said Chloé Deschamps, an 18-year-old student who had closely followed the case involving Mr. Girard.

In France, Black and Muslim feminists have especially clashed with traditional feminists — mostly older white women who, in keeping with France’s universalist ideals, tend to oppose strong racial and ethnic identification.

In 2017, Mayor Hidalgo became embroiled in a feud with a Black feminist group called Mwasi after she threatened to shut down their conference because some of the panels were restricted to Black women — or, as she described it in a tweet, “forbidden to whites.”

Fania Noël, a leader of Mwasi, said that she did not have any common ground with the mayor’s vision of feminism. But she found “points of convergence” with Ms. Coffin, who has expressed her admiration for Black feminists.

“The feminism of Alice Coffin is a radical feminism that is against patriarchy, and not for an accommodation of it,” Ms. Noël said.

But more traditional feminists worry that, in a deeply patriarchal society, the pointed attacks against Mr. Girard will fuel a backlash among men. They also see the denunciation of powerful men as an American-inspired strategy deeply alien to their vision of feminism, one that has sought, in France’s universalist tradition, equality for women by insisting that they were no different from men.

The mayor’s feminism produces concrete action, addressing problems with public policy, said Hélène Bidard, the deputy mayor for equality. Each of the past three city budgets had increased funding for groups supporting victims of gender violence, Ms. Bidard said.

About the divergences in French feminism, Ms. Bidard said, “There are differences in the approach, but we all have the same goal, the same vision of society.”

From the start, #MeToo has faced resistance from some leading Frenchwomen, most notably in a public letter signed by the actress Catherine Deneuve and other famous figures, and the movement has had limited impact.

But in the past year, a new generation of feminists has denounced powerful men who have been accused of sexual misconduct, including the film directors Roman Polanski and Christophe Ruggia, and Gérald Darmanin, a politician who was recently appointed France’s new interior minister and head of the national police.

Early this year, in a book called “Consent,” Vanessa Springora recounted being trapped in an abusive relationship with Mr. Matzneff when she was 14 and he was 50. After Mr. Girard’s support of the writer was revealed in an article in The New York Times, Ms. Coffin and other feminists successfully pressed him to resign.

Ms. Hidalgo, a political veteran of the Socialist Party who became the first female mayor of Paris in 2014, initially strongly backed Mr. Girard, while singling out Ms. Coffin and another feminist councilor, Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, for criticism.

That was so even though Ms. Hidalgo has long identified herself as a feminist. She served as a deputy mayor overseeing equality in the early 2000s, and, in her campaign for re-election early this year, talked about turning Paris into a “feminist capital” that would extend services for women and girls, including in schooling, health and support for victims of domestic violence.

“Nobody denies the feminism of Anne Hidalgo,” said Christine Bard, an expert on the history of feminism.

But she contrasted Ms. Hidalgo and her “universalist feminism’’ with Ms. Coffin, whom she described as a “pure product” of the newest wave of feminism.

Ms. Coffin recently won a seat on the Paris City Council as a Green Party member, but had previously carved out a name for herself in Paris as an activist and journalist. She co-founded an association for L.G.B.T. journalists. She was a leader in La Barbe, a feminist association that deploys political theater, including staging protests with women wearing beards.

In a two-hour interview, Ms. Coffin was careful to emphasize the continuity of French feminism. But she also made it clear that further progress for women could only be made through a new kind of feminism that “turns the mirror on men” and that is unafraid to express its anger.

“To successfully cross new stages, we have to be able to say, yes, men are waging war at us,” she said.

In France, feminists faced pressure to claim men as allies and express love for them, she said, adding, “We’re always asked to reaffirm that we’re not angry. But, me, I’m very angry.”

When Mr. Girard resigned abruptly as deputy mayor, he blamed a “new McCarthyism” and “cancel culture” — language immediately adopted by some traditional feminists who attacked Ms. Coffin.

One of the most respected historians of feminism, Michelle Perrot, described Ms. Coffin’s brand of feminism as “an excess that can only harm the cause of women.” Another leading figure in French feminism, Élisabeth Badinter, derided Ms. Coffin and #MeToo as representative of a movement that leads to “a totalitarian world.”

Another critic, Belinda Cannone, a writer and feminist, said younger feminists were obsessed with victimhood whereas her generation’s universalist feminism was about the empowerment of women. While Ms. Hidalgo didn’t make feminism central to her identity, her successful political career spoke for itself, Ms. Cannone said.

The focus on violence by men was a feminism that is “very emotional and not carefully thought through,” Ms. Cannone said.

“Was getting Girard kicked out that important?” Ms. Cannone said.

For many younger feminists, the answer was obvious.

Focusing on the violence against women is central to re-examining the imbalance of power inherent in many relationships.

“It goes to the heart of the lives of men and women,’’ said Victoire Tuaillon, the creator of a popular podcast that examines masculinity and gender relations. “Everybody is forced to look back and reflect on one’s life and sometimes find such horrors that you want to leave the monsters under the bed.”

After prosecutors began investigating the sexual abuse allegations against Mr. Girard, he announced that he was withdrawing from active politics, at least for now, though he kept his seat on the City Council.

Put on the defensive, Mayor Hidalgo changed her tone in her tweets. “As the mayor of Paris and a feminist activist for equal rights,” she said, she would always support the victims of rape and sexual violence.

“She needs to reassert her solidarity with the feminist cause,” said Ms. Bard, the historian.

As for Ms. Coffin, she is now spearheading efforts to push Mr. Girard off the council altogether. Long an activist, Ms. Coffin said she was aware that she was now a feminist working in the political establishment — not unlike Mayor Hidalgo.

“I believe in the virtue of feminists inside the state apparatus because I’m convinced that it can work while retaining a radical form,” she said. “And for now, I haven’t been proven wrong.”

Théophile Larcher contributed reporting.

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