When the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke two years ago, the news was mostly met in France with a Gallic shrug. Screen icon Catherine Deneuve even denounced the #MeToo movement as creating a “totalitarian” environment. But bombshell accusations this month from actors Adèle Haenel and Valentine Monnier may finally have turned the tide in the local film industry.
Following the Nov. 4 publication of an investigation by news website Mediapart, in which Haenel accused director Christophe Ruggia of having sexually harassed her for years from the time she was 12, French stars such as Marion Cotillard, Isabelle Adjani and Jean Dujardin, as well as institutions such as UniFrance and the directors’ guild SRF, have spoken out in support of Haenel and, to a larger extent, all victims of alleged sexual abuse in the movie business. Ruggia was swiftly booted from the SRF, and is now being investigated by the Paris prosecutor.
Four days later, Monnier came forward with her allegation that Roman Polanski raped her in 1975, when she was just 18. In an unexpected chain of events, promotion of Polanski’s new film, “An Officer and a Spy,” was axed in France, its lead actor canceled interviews and the director faces possible expulsion from the French guild of authors, directors and producers, the ARP, whose board has approved a proposal to suspend or remove any member under investigation for or guilty of a sexual offense. The ARP’s members will vote later on ratifying the policy.
In a country that has prided itself on drawing a distinction between an artist’s private and professional life, the shift in attitude by the SRF and the ARP seems to mark the beginning of a new era. French industry players credit Haenel and her decision to speak out in a way that implicated more than just her alleged harasser. She told Mediapart: “The issue isn’t so much me, how I survive this or not. I want to talk about an abuse which is unfortunately commonplace, and attack the system of silence and collusion behind it, which makes it possible.”
That statement marks “a turning point” in France, says producer Charles Gillibert. “She speaks less of her aggressor than the systemic impunity that harassers benefit from, and the difficulty of finding someone to confide in, whether within the justice system, the industry or even close associates.”
Before Haenel stepped forward, the impact of #MeToo in France had largely been limited to the creation of the 5050×2020 movement, which fights for gender equality in the film world and has led key festivals such as Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Toronto to sign a pledge to increase female representation in their ranks. Now, steps are finally being considered to curb harassment and abuse.
Director Rebecca Zlotowski, a member of the SRF and 5050×2020, says those two organizations will collaborate with the National Film Board and other French guilds on guidelines for preventing sexual misconduct on film productions, including such measures as appointing on-site counselors, reminding people in their contracts of the law against harassment and inserting a clause in agreements with insurance companies that would allow victims to speak out freely no matter the potential consequences for the shoot.
Zlotowski believes that #MeToo wasn’t embraced in France because of a “fear of puritanism and an anti-American sentiment,” among other factors. Now “the debate has gone past those fears and caricatures,” she says. “Haenel’s testimony was decisive because she was able to turn her intimate experience into a political act, and she was more powerful than the person she accused. That’s why it’s so crucial to shift the power balance and give it more to women. It’s a virtuous circle.”
Speaking out in France can be tough because the country boasts strict libel laws, making it difficult for someone to make a public accusation even when a police investigation is underway.
“For the last two years, I’ve been hearing many women working in the industry complaining about situations where they were sexually harassed, but they’re all afraid of speaking,” producer Vanessa Dijan says. “The risk of being sued for defamation partly explains their silence.”
At the same time, “the only way to be heard and make an impact is by going to the press,” says Juliette Renaud, the producer of “Vernon Subutex.” “Two-thirds of rape accusations are dismissed by the police.”
The few allegations of sexual misconduct in the French entertainment industry that have emerged in the past two years have so far gone nowhere. Prosecutors dropped their sexual assault investigation into actor Gérard Depardieu, citing lack of evidence. The same thing happened with EuropaCorp founder Luc Besson, whom actor Sand Van Roy accused of raping her in a Paris hotel room. Van Roy has since filed a civil complaint against the director and a judge has reopened the case.
But change could finally be in the air. “We must end the omertà surrounding sexual violence, which feeds the feeling of impunity of aggressors,” French culture minister Franck Riester said at a Nov. 14 conference hosted by the national film board and 5050×2020. “The guilt must change camps. The presumption of innocence [for suspects] must not be a presumption of guilt of victims.”
Michel Hazanavicius, the Oscar-winning director of “The Artist,” said “Not taking sides…perpetuates a status quo that validates and therefore justifies an almost institutionalized violence.”
Hazanavicius said that while “no one can be satisfied with these public and media trials, we can’t be satisfied either with the existing situation. That’s why the priority must be to give a voice to victims. Giving weight to their voices puts an end to the sense of impunity.”