Is France the home of romance or a place of rampant sexual harassment?

BBC journalist Hélène Daouphars has travelled back to her home country to make a documentary about sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement in France. She explains why she picked that topic.

Is France the home of romance or a place of rampant sexual harassment?
Why has the #MeToo movement proved so divisive in France? Photo: AFP

From my experience, France likes to present an image of itself as a place of cultural exception – refinement, gastronomy and excellence.

This image keeps the myth of ‘The French Woman’ alive in the minds of those abroad but also those at home. But who is this ‘French Woman’? She’s busy, working a full-time job, as well as having children at home, (but always slim, glamorous, and sexy)! No pressure…


BBC journalist Hélène Daouphars has made a documentary about sexual harassment in France. Photo BBC

But do French women really have it all?

In terms of abuse against women, the statistics in France aren’t good. According to a study for France’s High Council for Women's Equality in 2015, 100 per cent of women who use public transport in the Paris region say they have faced sexual harassment.

And according to another 2015 study by the Défenseur Des Droits institute 80 per cent of working women say they regularly face sexist decisions or attitudes at work – but 60 per cent decide not to say anything because they fear what consequences that could have on their careers.

Last August I was at work when I saw a video posted by a woman called Marie Laguerre on YouTube.

She had uploaded CCTV footage of walking past a café when she was cat-called by a man she didn’t know.

When she answered back to him, he punched her in the face. Just like that, in broad day light in a public place. Like many, I was shocked by what I saw.

However despite being shocked, perhaps because I am French, it didn’t seem that unusual to me. It was when I had this thought that it became clear that there was a story to tell here, about the story behind sexual harassment for women in a country known around the world for being the home of romance. 

Marie Laguerre, who posted online CCTV of herself being sexually harassed then physically attacked in the street. Photo: AFP

I started by looking back at how #MeToo had played out in France.

In 2017 when #MeToo spread around the world, it proved hugely popular in France, with thousands of French women using the hashtag #balancetonporc. But soon, using the hashtag became controversial for its vociferousness and created huge debate.

Some criticised the aggressive wording of the hashtag, and others disagreed with the call to name perpetrators.

A letter defending the right to flirt was signed by 100 French women, including the famous actress Catherine Deneuve and published in Le Monde, which shocked many and fuelled the controversy.

It struck me that in the USA, some of Hollywood’s big actresses had been at the forefront of the #MeToo outcry, but in France one of the nation’s most well-known women went the other way.

For me, this showed up the difference between France’s attitude to sexual harassment and that of the Anglophone world.

In making the documentary I spoke with women from across France, such as ex-presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, eminent historian Michelle Perrot, and the French journalist Sandra Muller, who started the #balancetonporc hashtag, to try and understand what’s going on in France.

Why was #MeToo so controversial in France? Was it lost in translation?  Or is there something else going on?

Not #MeToo, I'm French is on the BBC World Service at 2.30pm CET on Tuesday,  April 2nd 2019.

After the transmission time, it will also be available on catch-up.

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Three stories of finding love in Italy that will restore your faith in romance

Valentine's Day has its roots in the Roman Empire, so what better way to celebrate than with some heartwarming real-life stories about Italian love.

Three stories of finding love in Italy that will restore your faith in romance
Holly and Gianluca on their wedding day in Capri. Photo: Private

“And that is … how they are. So terribly physically all over one another. They pour themselves one over the other like so much melted butter over parsnips. They catch each other under the chin, with a tender caress of the hand, and they smile with sunny melting tenderness into each other's face.”

This is what British author D.H Lawrence once wrote about Italy. We know the country has its problems, but you can't escape the romance, whether that be in Romeo and Juliet's Verona, on a street sign, like the one in Cinque Terre below, or the open displays of affection. It's no wonder that many of those who travel or move to Italy do so with a secret hope of starting their own Italian love story.

The Street of Love. Photo: bigskyred/Flickr

But as a foreigner, sometimes the idea of actually finding love in the most romantic of countries can seem as distant from reality as the many myths surrounding Italy's dating culture.

There are language and cultural barriers to contend with, plus additional fears based on the stereotype of Italians as cheating Lotharios.

However, it can be done, and here are three pairs of star-crossed lovers whose 'how we met' stories will make you want to book a flight to Italy right away.

Holly and Gianluca, who run a restaurant together in Capri

In 2013, I was travelling around Italy for a five week holiday. It was my first visit to Capri and on my second night, I found myself dining at Ristorante Michel’angelo. From the moment I walked in to Michel’angelo, I immediately felt comfortable, which as a solo Australian traveller I really appreciated.

Little did I know this meal would change my life forever.

The waiter, Gianluca (who I later learnt was the owner) had such a warm manner but could only speak a little English and I could only speak a little Italian. At the end of my meal, in my best Italian I asked for the bill several times and instead received dessert and limoncello. I thought to myself that he mustn't have understood me. All the other tables were paying their bills and leaving until I was the only person left in the restaurant.

Gianluca then placed his order pad on the table, explained that he had not yet eaten and cheekily asked me for a table for one. Finding it pretty amusing (and with a little limoncello courage), I got up and showed him to a table, lit the candle and took his order. After I placed the order with the chef, I joined his table and with the help of Google translate we laughed until the early hours of the morning.

Two weddings later (one in Capri and one in Sydney) and with two beautiful baby boys, we now run Michel’angelo together and share an appreciation for fantastic food, wine, family and a good laugh!

Laura Thayer, an American writer and art historian who lives with her husband, Lello, on the Amalfi coast

The way I met my husband is right out of a romance movie.

My mother had planned a holiday here in 2007 while I was at graduate school in the US, and I just knew I had to go along! I was studying art history at the time, so it made sense to come to Italy.

We came to the Amalfi coast on a week-long tour, which is when I fell in love with the architecture of the area … and our tour guide!

We did the long distance thing for quite a while, with a lot of back and forth, until we finally married in 2012. 

Besides the stereotypical meeting, we're a pretty atypical couple with our cultural and age differences. I didn't even know a word of Italian when we met. But fortunately, since he is a tour guide the language barrier wasn't an issue. It has been quite an unexpected adventure, but one I wouldn't change for anything. It's true … you never really know how a vacation might change your life! 

Alice Kiandra Adam, an Australian cook and food stylist, who lives with her husband, Leonardo and two children in Rome

I was a caterer and food stylist in Melbourne when I left in May 2005 for a year-long trip to Italy.

I had studied Italian at primary school, and again as an adult, and was enamoured with the Italian gastronomic landscape. I had sold the catering business I had with a friend, and with enough money in my back pocket I thought I'd go to Rome to really learn the language.

My first job was as a waitress in a restaurant in the Trastevere district. It was a totally memorable experience. At the pub next door, where we would go for a drink after our shift, I met Leonardo.

It feels like a cliché writing this, but when we met I was swept off my feet on the back of a white Vespa. So when I got to the end of my 12 months of course I wanted to stay.

Almost 11 years later and we have two children, Alberto, 7, and Emma, 6. It was after they were born that I decided to go back to working in the food sector. I missed the creativity, the markets and produce and just being in the kitchen. It has been a really slow road building up a business in Rome, but I now work with some great Italian and international photographers, teach and lead tours with Casa Mia, and have a lot of really great projects happening at Latteria Studio, which I share in Trastevere.

I love Australia, and wish it was (quite) a bit closer, but there is so much about Italy, and Europe, that stimulates, challeges and inspires me.

A version of this article was first published in February 2016.