“TO EMANCIPATE A woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she has to men, not to deny them to her.” So wrote Simone de Beauvoir, the godmother of French feminism, in “The Second Sex” over 70 years ago. Not all French feminists today would agree. A new book, “Lesbian Genius”, suggests that women should banish men from their lives. Its author, Alice Coffin, a lesbian activist and Paris city councillor, says she no longer reads books by men, nor watches films made by men, nor listens to music written by men. No more Voltaire, Truffaut or Daft Punk, then. We need, she declares, to “eliminate men from our minds”.
The backlash was immediate. Not from men (who needs to hear from them?), but from other French feminists. Marlène Schiappa, formerly President Emmanuel Macron’s minister for gender equality, accused Ms Coffin of advocating “a form of apartheid”. Sonia Mabrouk, a radio host, asked the author if she was not promoting “obscurantism” and a “form of totalitarianism”. The Catholic University of Paris, where Ms Coffin taught, declined to renew her contract.
France gave the world post-war feminist theory. But today unwritten codes about dress, seduction and femininity coexist with a lingering predatory sexual culture. #MeToo struggled to take off in France. The rate of féminicide, or murder by a domestic partner, is unusually high. A younger generation is fighting back. Many took to the streets earlier this year, enraged after a César, the French version of an Oscar, was awarded to Roman Polanski, who fled America after pleading guilty to sex with a minor. Mr Macron has put in place measures to combat sexism and violence against women. Yet such efforts to promote mere equality are dismissed by radicals as timid. The veritable “war” waged by men against women, argues Ms Coffin, who honed her views while studying briefly in America, requires more militancy.
In her denunciation of the way power still protects predators, Ms Coffin is spearheading a new French feminism. But de Beauvoir would have found her crusade against men as a whole “ridiculous”, says Agnès Poirier, the author of a book about Left Bank intellectuals. De Beauvoir, who was bisexual, lived for decades in an open relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. She flouted convention and gave French women a voice, but defiantly kept both men and women in her bed—and in the conversation.
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Like a fish needs a bicyclette”