PARIS (AFP) – French film star Catherine Deneuve, who set off a worldwide feminist backlash for bashing the #MeToo movement, has apologised to victims of sexual assault, saying there was “nothing good” about harassment.
She was one of 100 prominent French women who signed an open letter last week defending men’s freedom to “hit on” women, and inferring that women fondled on public transport should just get over it.
But the screen legend distanced herself “from certain signatories of the letter… who have distorted the spirit of the text by expanding upon it in the media”, and apologised “to the victims of these hideous acts who might have felt offended by the letter.
“It is to them and them alone that I offer my apologies,” the actress said in a letter published on Sunday on the website of French daily Liberation.
Deneuve insisted there was nothing in the original open letter that said “anything good about harassment, otherwise I wouldn’t have signed it”.
And she defended her own feminist credentials citing French feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir’s historic 1971 declaration of women who admitted having abortions while it was still illegal, which she also signed.
Deneuve’s statement was seen as an attempt to distance herself from porn star-turned-agony aunt Brigitte Lahaie, who caused an outcry by claiming on Thursday that some women have orgasms when they are raped.
The former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi, notorious for his “bunga bunga” parties with prostitutes, had also thanked the “blessed” Deneuve for speaking out.
Author Catherine Millet author of the bestselling memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, and one of the main movers behind the text, also raised eyebrows by standing by a claim that she “really regretted not having being raped, because then I could have shown that you get over it”.
Their letter to Le Monde on Tuesday deplored the wave of “denunciations” which has followed claims that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted and harassed women over decades.
It claimed that #MeToo had become a puritanical “witch-hunt” which threatened sexual freedom.
But Deneuve said what she was attacking was “this characteristic of our era where everyone feels they have the right… to condemn. An era where simple denunciations on social networks cause punishment, resignation, and… often media lynching”, she wrote in Liberation.
As an actress since she was 17, Deneuve admitted that during her career she had been “a witness to indelicate situations” between men and women.
Other signatories of the Le Monde including Millet and actress Catherine Robbe-Grillet welcomed Deneuve’s clarification, saying the episode had “reaffirmed the need to preserve sexual freedom and fight media lynching”.
The letter they signed “does not claim harassment is good”, they said.
Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, also weighed in on the debate at the weekend, saying the #MeToo movement was “a symptom of a broken legal system”.
She said “vigilante justice” was a “response to a lack of justice – either the system is corrupt, as in prerevolutionary France, or there isn’t one, as in the Wild West – so people take things into their own hands”.
“All too frequently, women and other sexual-abuse complainants couldn’t get a fair hearing through institutions – including corporate structures – so they used a new tool: the internet,” she wrote in Canada’s The Globe and Mail.
The Le Monde letter triggered a wave of indignation worldwide, with a group of leading French feminists branding Deneuve and the other signatories as “apologists for rape”.
“Their letter is like a tired old uncle who doesn’t understand what is happening,” the feminists said in their riposte.
Italian actress Asia Argento, who has accused Weinstein of rape, was equally excoriating. “Deneuve and other French women tell the world how their interiorised misogyny has lobotomised them to the point of no return,” she tweeted.
And the letter’s assertions that being “fondled on a metro… was a non-event” to some women, and a man’s right to hit on a woman was fundamental to sexual freedom, sparked particular fury.
Against the chorus of opposition, Deneuve said in her letter to Liberation that the solution to sexual harassment “will come with the upbringing of our boys and girls”, adding that businesses must also be tougher.
“If there is harassment, legal action will be immediately taken. I believe in justice,” she added.