The woman who hates men - and the book that has France hooked
PUBLISHED: 11:28 17 September 2020 | UPDATED: 16:10 17 September 2020
A book by 25-year-old Pauline Harmange has been a surprise hit - helped by an attempt by a government official to have it banned. CONSTANCE KAMPFNER reports on an issue that has shown up the complexities of French feminism.
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I’m walking down a road on the outskirts of Nantes, minding my own business and fully engrossed in my podcast about female octopuses, when out of the corner of my eye I see a car pull up alongside me.
“Eh Mademoiselle!” a man shouts. Auto-program kicks in: keep walking, don’t make eye contact, try to ignore that feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“Hey, where are you going?” the man calls out as he cruises along bedsides me. Now anger rears its head too; I can’t concentrate on what the marine scientist is saying about octopus parturition and it’s pissing me off.
So I look up to shoot the driver a filthy glare and do a double take. It’s my flatmate on his way home from work. He’s offering me a lift. He apologises for startling me – he was only messing about.
I apologise in turn for the death stare and quickly re-adjust my facial expression to something more congenial. But as I clamber into the car, the emotion I was harbouring just seconds before towards my close friend takes longer to shake off. It feels a lot like hatred.
According to the 25-year-old French writer Pauline Harmange, I have nothing to feel guilty about. Her debut book Moi les hommes, je les détestes (which loosely translates to ‘Men, I Hate Them’) argues that men have given women every reason in the world to dislike them – so why shouldn’t we?
As a Brit who’s lived in France I must say that it takes a while to get used to the gender dynamics there. I get the impression that I am constantly being made aware of my femaleness, whether at work, on the street or in social situations, a state of affairs only emphasised by the constant use of the feminine in language.
A Parisian friend of mine who now lives in the UK told me she always feels like a weight has been lifted from her whenever she crosses over the Channel. “I worry so much less about what I’m wearing when I leave home in London,” she tells me. Which, given the stat that 85% of young women experience sexual harassment in British public spaces, is saying something.
In her book, Harmange, a long-time volunteer for a charity that fights against sexual abuse, cites figures from 2018 that show that 96% of people convicted of domestic violence were men, as were 99% of those convicted of sexual violence. Women, she has pronounced, “are encouraged to like men, but we should absolutely have the right not to”.
Happily married to a man herself, she maintains that women should be allowed not to love the male species as a whole but instead make exceptions for certain anomalies. Coming together in a shared hatred of men, she wryly suggests, could present women with “a joyful and emancipatory path”.
The 90-page essay has upset a lot of people in France, no one more so than Ralph Zurmély, an advisor to France’s gender equality ministry who has tried to have it banned.
This has, of course, had the opposite effect of what he intended and demand for the book – which had a miniscule first print run of only 450 – has soared. Its ‘micro-publisher’ is overwhelmed and has had to ask a bigger publishing house to step in as copies fly off the shelves.
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Harmange’s unapologetic defence of “man-hating” may seem extreme, but to her newly-acquired fans it makes total sense. She reminds her readers that misandry, after all, is merely a response to misogyny and she does not incite violence.
Yet the link between what might seem like more innocent forms of harassment and serious violence towards women is supported by statistics in both countries. In the UK, two women a week die at the hands of a partner or an ex, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. In France the figure is three women killed a week, says l’Observatoire des violences faites aux femmes.
The controversy around Harmange’s book casts a spotlight on a fraught wider debate that has been taking place on the issue of feminism in France.
A divide exists within the feminist movement, mainly felt along generational lines. Younger women are increasingly concerned with inclusivity in all its forms, whether that be around racism, LGBTQ rights or class, while older feminists fall back on France’s universalist tradition.
They are more interested in seeking economic and social parity with men, emphasising their similarities rather than their differences.
Back in 2018, as the #MeToo movement was building momentum across the world, more than 100 influential French women signed an open letter defending a man’s “right to bother”. In the US and UK, the movement led to the defenestration of the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and Kevin Spacey. Yet in France it has so far been little more than a slap on the wrist for the establishment.
At times it seems to have had the oposite effect. A year ago, the journalist Sandra Muller was ordered by the courts to pay 15,000 euros in damages to the TV boss Éric Brion after her accusations against him for sexual harassment were ruled to be defamatory.
There is a worry among many in France that, if unchecked, a wave of puritanism risks hijacking the public discourse. Many view the younger generation’s growing concern with “political correctness” as an unwelcome Anglo-Saxon import (it is not unusual to hear people refer to “le bodypositivisme” or “le mansplaining”).
One could almost hear them scoff at our feminism as they do at our food: tasteless, over-simplified, and potentially dangerous if ingested without caution.
The signatories of the anti-#MeToo letter argued that the right to offend is “indispensable” to artistic creation. They say objecting, for example, to prizes for Roman Polanski’s films, on moral grounds, confuses “the man and the work”. Against the hysteria of the Anglo-Saxons, they portray the French as the last defenders of free speech, the protectors of passion and their country as a haven for unfettered artistry and humour.
Which is why Zurmély’s objection to Harmange’s book seems particularly ironic. This is a country in which the question of whether or not a magazine article which depicts a black female politician as a slave in shackles is racist or just good satire is seen as a legitimate subject to debate on national television (look up the Danièle Obono scandal if you haven’t already heard about it).
Some point out that the anti-censorship argument is often used against the more vulnerable in society. If they have the temerity to fight back, the establishment cries foul. When an aide to the ministry of equality throws a hissy fit about a book with a readership of less than 500, threatening legal action against an artisanal publishing house, whose freedom did he think he was protecting?
Far from prudish or puritanical, the new brand of French feminism is often radically creative and funny. The underground group who call themselves the ‘Colleuses’ spend their nights on guerrilla missions, pasting collages all over French cities denouncing harassment and violence done to women. Meanwhile members of ‘La Barbe’ don stick-on beards and storm the red carpet at the Césars film awards, or set up camp at a Freemasons meeting, and congratulate men on their obvious supremacy. Harmange’s book – serious in content and facetious in tone – is the latest provocation to arise out of this movement.
Which brings me back to my walk with the octopus. The momentary hatred I felt for my flatmate left me confused, but I did not feel as regretful as I might have done. Once home, I was glad to get back to my podcast. It was an account of the epic feat of a deep-sea octopus that brooded over her eggs for almost five years without once eating, only to die of exhaustion once they finally hatched. It left me with a thought: where was the dad? Probably trying to ban a book…
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