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France in the age of #MeToo grapples with seduction, harassment

Some in France are nostalgic for a simpler time when flirting was considered a compliment and daily interaction between the sexes wasn’t so politically fraught.
Image: Seduction in Paris
The Pont des Arts in Paris is popular with couples.Thibault Camus / for NBC News

PARIS — Maurice Laroche maneuvers a huge wheel of film across the cramped projection room of Paris’ last X-rated movie theater.

A peephole through the wall frames balding heads in front of the moving images of a 1980s porn flick. The city was once awash with such establishments, but The Beverly will soon shut its doors for good.

In many ways, Laroche represents a generation nostalgic for a simpler time when sexual liberation was in its heyday, flirting was considered a compliment, and daily interaction between the sexes wasn’t so politically fraught.

Laroche, who owns The Beverly, feels increasingly at odds with how French society is evolving. Among the many alien developments the 74-year-old says he has struggled to comprehend is the recent deluge of women denouncing sexual harassment in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

“We can’t do or say anything anymore,” Laroche said, adding that he agreed with the legendary French actresses Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve that the #MeToo campaign had gone too far.

Image: Seduction in Paris
Maurice Laroche owns the last porn movie theater in Paris.Thibault Camus / for NBC News

“With all the venting, we’ll no longer dare to speak to women, we won’t look at them, they’ll become totally transparent,” Laroche said as regulars filtered in and out.

Many in France, a country so synonymous with romance that Paris is known as the "City of Love," now find themselves uncertain where seduction ends and sexual harassment begins.

The debate often returns to identity, what it means to be French. Some believe the #MeToo movement is the latest swell in a seemingly unstoppable wave of American political correctness.

While many younger people have embraced #MeToo as a step forward in gender relations, there are signs of a generational divide, with others maintaining that the right to seduce and be seduced must be protected.

“Here in France we drink wine, we eat unpasteurized cheese and we chat up people in the street"

Deneuve earlier this month joined 99 other prominent French women in signing a letter defending the "right to pester," saying it was "vital to sexual freedom." The 74-year-old actress also claimed the movement was fueled by "hatred of men."

Middle-aged Parisians at a gathering of singles at La Belle Armée brasserie near the Arc de Triomphe agreed with many of Deneuve's points.

“In France women want to be caught by a man and not the opposite, it’s at the heart of our Latin civilization,” said Isabelle Plançon, 50, as she drank champagne in the low-lit cocktail bar. “Here in France we drink wine, we eat unpasteurized cheese and we chat up people in the street.”

Like many of the well-dressed attendees, Plançon said she supported the idea behind the #MeToo movement but added that misconduct complaints should be tested in court.

Image: Seduction in Paris
A couple in Paris, the so-called city of love.Thibault Camus / for NBC News

The sales rep said she was concerned that flirtation would be conflated with sexual harassment — which might stop men from approaching women.

"I'm not pestered because a man tries to chat me up. It makes me happy, it's part of life — from the very beginning men have approached women," Plançon said, accompanied by a soundtrack of French ballads.

Jean-Pierre Latorre, a 45-year-old financial consultant, agreed that the #MeToo campaign was making male-female relationships “more complicated and less natural."

“We can no longer compliment women, now it has a sexual connotation,” he said. "We're becoming more black and white, and that's a bad thing because life is not black and white — there are 50 shades of gray,” Latorre joked.

Olivier Grosjean, 64, a finance worker who had just ordered smoked salmon blinis, said that #MeToo revealed the “puritanical side of the Americans.” He said reaction in the U.S. to the recent outpouring of accusations reminded him of President Bill Clinton's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Image: French actress Julie Gayet and President Francois Hollande
Actress Julie Gayet had a secret relationship with Francois Hollande while he was France's president.VALERY HACHE / THOMAS SAMSON / AFP - Getty Images, file

“In Latin countries these stories make us smile," Grossjean added, quipping that if former French President François Hollande had been American, he would have had to resign after it emerged that he was having an affair with French actress Julie Gayet. “I'm much more interested in Hollande’s politics ... than I am in who he has on the back of his scooter."

But Véronique Kirschner said #MeToo was a good thing, adding that sometimes you have to go to extremes to re-establish balance. "The omertà exists in France, and we have to get beyond it,” the physiotherapist said, referring to the mafia code of silence.

The 58-year-old Kirschner added that while she felt she could defend herself from unwanted attention, she understood that not everyone possesses that "strength of character."

In the restaurant of a department store on the Champs-Élysées, Jean-Julien Pascalet said he thought the #MeToo campaign was excessive, adding that he felt the American culture of "good and bad" was tainting the French way of life.

“We already can’t really say or do anything regarding minorities, with regards to race, we can no longer make jokes. It’s becoming very worrying. There's a sort of moral order which is being imposed," the 55-year-old events organizer said.

Pascalet said he didn’t want France to return to a place where people were told how to behave. “We suffered for a long time from religion, which imposed a moral order — saying, 'that’s good, that’s bad.' If we go back to that … it would be terrible, it would be an Orwellian society.”

Image: Seduction in Paris
Jean-Julien PascaletThibault Camus / for NBC News

Elisabeth Levy, 54, is the managing editor of the conservative magazine Causeur and a co-signatory to the open letter backed by Deneuve.

Levy said the wave of "stupid" political correctness came from America, where she said men would never dare stop a woman in the street to tell her she was beautiful and where feminists wanted to abolish the differences between the genders.

"I understand that some people want this world, but I want to fight for another world," she said, sipping an espresso in a café near Paris' City Hall.

She said keeping the “gray zone” was crucial to sexual liberty.

Levy rejected the #MeToo campaign, saying she felt humiliated by the image of women as victims that it promoted, and that it disregarded the rights of the accused.

"Even Stalin organized trials," Levy added. "There will be no justice by forgetting the hardcore rules of justice."

Image: Seduction in Paris
A couple takes a stroll in Paris.Thibault Camus / for NBC News

In October, France’s answer to the #MeToo movement — #BalanceTonPorc, or denounce your pig — sparked hundreds of thousands of online posts from women alleging abuse and sexism across France’s cultural, political and economic sectors. But few named names.

That same month, Secretary of State for Gender Equality Marlène Schiappa said the government was considering new laws against sexual harassment, including introducing fines for catcalling in the street.

President Emmanuel Macron later said French society was “sick with sexism,” and that the country had “to act now before it is too late.”

But while the movement appeared to gain pace, it has led to only a handful of resignations of French public figures, the majority of whom were relatively unknown.

"In politics, big companies, media organizations, very few people actually lost their jobs," said Nabil Wakim, a journalist for Le Monde newspaper who has covered the Weinstein fallout.

Young Feminists argue that rather than a dangerous wave that needed to be stopped, the #MeToo movement was an important step forward and that Deneuve and her co-signatories were out of touch.

Image: Catherine Deneuve
Catherine DeneuveJOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP - Getty Images, file

Activist Rebecca Amsellem claimed Deneuve’s letter was not indicative of how most women in the country feel.

“They don’t represent all women in France, not at all,” she said. The 29-year-old described Deneuve as "a white, rich, famous woman who sees the world changing and doesn’t really know where she situates herself in it."

Although Amsellem said she supported #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc, she agreed that the movement risked becoming trial-by-social media. However, she said the internet had become one of the only ways for women to “speak our truth.”

“The problem is that the legal system has failed women and has failed victims,” she said, describing the humiliating process of having to report a sexual assault.

Pauline Verduzier, 26, a journalist who writes about gender issues and sex, said she failed to comprehend how French women could agree with Deneuve.

“The statement said if men don’t have the right to be pushy or flirty without asking, without making sure that it’s OK, it’s the end of seduction because seduction is based on men conquering women," she said. "This is not the future; this is the past. This is wrong. Everything in this statement is not for freedom, it’s the opposite.

Image: Seduction in Paris
Pauline VerduzierThibault Camus / for NBC News

Caroline De Haas, a feminist who wrote an open response to Deneuve, which was co-signed by nearly 30 women and published by France Info, said the actress' views “belittled violence against women.”

“I think that we have a real problem in France with this story of seduction and gallantry. Because it’s not a reality — French men and French society are no more polite with women than others,” De Haas said, pointing to the fact that more than 200 rapes, or attempted rapes, occur a day in France, a country of around 67 million people. (Across the United States, which has a population of around 323 million, some 881 people a day are victims of rape or sexual assault, according to RAINN, a Washington-based campaign group.)

Verduzier agreed: “French food exists, French cheese exists, French wine exists, French nice dinner in Paris with candles exists, the Eiffel Tower exists — but French seduction does not.”

But some young women welcomed Deneuve's intervention.

"She's a free woman and I love free women," said 32-year-old Pauline Falchun, who was smoking a cigarette outside Le Carillon bar near the trendy Canal Saint-Martin.

"They've lived through things we don't understand, dealt with things we don't understand," she said, referring to Deneuve's generation of women. "If she says these things now, we can't berate her for it, she's an intelligent woman and I think what she said was misunderstood."

Pierre-Antoine Wucal, who was chatting with Falchun, disagreed with Deneuve. "I think she's wrong. She's out of touch with the 20-year-old girls who have to walk home at night," the 32-year-old photographer said. "Pestering women is the old system, it's no longer relevant."

Image: Seduction in Paris
"Love locks" left by couples adorn Pont Neuf bridge in Paris.Thibault Camus / for NBC News

Students at a campus of Sorbonne University south of the River Seine said sexual harassment had been ignored for too long.

“It’s important that women have the right to denounce the abuse they experience,” said Tevin Phommachak, 19, who said he thought the line between flirtation and harassment was clear. “No means no, that should be enough.”

Coline Gilbert, 21, a chemistry student who was waiting outside the library on a drizzly morning, said she was sick of hearing that men are different from women in that they can’t control their sexual urges. “It’s not an excuse.”

As for Deneuve, Gilbert said the actress and the 99 others had to be understood as women of their time. “They had a different education to us, the woman’s place in society was different,” she said. “It’s about mentality and education. It just means society is changing.”

Medical student Rania Sendid agreed. “I don’t think you’ll find many people who agree with Catherine Deneuve around here,” said the 21-year-old, referring to the actress's defense of the right to pester women.

“If that’s your fetish, if that turns you on, there’s a problem," said Sendid. "She doesn’t speak for me.”