France’s Next Chance at a #MeToo Reckoning

Gérard Depardieu being questioned on assault charges gives France another shot at holding its establishment to account.

France’s Next Chance at a #MeToo Reckoning
Art by Alena Berger

Well, here’s a story we’ve heard before: A powerful man, drunk on his own influence, repeatedly abuses women in one of the world’s most cutthroat industries—the movie business. 

It’s a story that’s been told since the dawn of the #MeToo movement. (But let’s be honest, has been going on for long before that. Exhibit A: Harvey Weinstein’s conviction being overturned in a New York courtroom last week.)

On Monday, #MeToo roared back when news outlets in France reported that the actor Gérard Depardieu had been taken into police custody for questioning over allegations made by two women who accuse him of sexually assaulting them on the sets of movies in 2021 and 2014, respectively. Police confirmed that the questioning was related to these cases. Depardieu, through his lawyers, denied all allegations, but he has been ordered to stand trial.

To many it could feel like déjà-vu, a mere French iteration of the harrowing #MeToo stories that have been unfolding in other parts of the western world for years; but to dismiss it as such underplays the significance of this moment. After all, France has often allowed repugnant misogyny to pass as men just being men.

Take Dominique Strauss-Kahn, for example. In 2015, the former head of the International Monetary Fund was acquitted of aggravated pimping charges. In that case, Strauss-Kahn—who’d also served as the French economy minister—was accused of using a network of friends, acquaintances and other accomplices to organize sex parties with prostitutes.

When the acquittal landed, some people in France, including François Hollande who was president from 2012 to 2017, reacted with relief rather than outrage—relief, perhaps, that the sacrosanct nature of private lives, virtually enshrined in France’s cultural code, would no longer be challenged.

Or take the moment in 2018, when Catherine Deneuve, one of France’s most prominent movie stars, denounced the #MeToo movement as a witch hunt against men, triggering an international backlash. Deneuve and about a hundred other French celebrities, including Catherine Millet, author of the explicit 2002 bestseller The Sexual Life of Catherine M., signed an open letter criticizing the new “puritanism” of the slew of “denunciations” in the aftermath of initial claims that Harvey Weinstein had sexually assaulted women.

As for Depardieu, this is not the first time he has faced sexual assault charges. In 2020, he was charged with rape and sexual assault, after the actor Charlotte Arnould claimed he had attacked her twice in 2018, when she was just 22. 

Since then, Depardieu has been accused of sexual harassment and assault by more than a dozen women. A documentary showed him making lewd remarks and gestures in front of women during a 2018 trip to North Korea. And in February, a 53-year-old movie set decorator alleged that Depardieu grabbed her and kneaded her waist, stomach and breasts during filming for “Les Volets Verts” in 2021.

Still, many have sprung to Depardieu’s defense. In December, more than 50 French actors, writers and producers put their name to a letter defending him which was published in Le Figaro. Signatories included Carla Bruni the singer and former first lady, Depardieu’s former partner Carole Bousquet, and the actors Pierre Richard, Charlotte Rampling and Victoria Abril. That same month, French President Emmanuel Macron sparked fury when he said that Depardieu “makes France proud.”

By Monday afternoon, Depardieu was out of police custody; his trial will begin in October. Depending on the outcome, what happened may have been little more than an inconvenience at the start of yet another week in a powerful man’s life, or it may indicate a more meaningful shift in sentiment: a realization in France that the country’s own #MeToo movement might still have a very long way to go.