A new book has re-ignited a fraught debate in France over whether gallantry is a “brilliant but poisonous myth” that must be jettisoned a year after #Metoo or a treasured Gallic exception that is the envy of the world.
Gallantry, which first appeared in France in the mid-17th century as a code of conduct between the sexes in high society and an art form, may have provided subservient women with a modicum of empowerment at the time but its legacy is perpetuating gender inequality.
That is the view of Laure Murat, a French professor at the University of California in Los Angeles in her A Sexual Revolution, Post-Weinstein Reflections, written in response to the rape scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ms Murat described the concept of gallantry as a “screen” that has helped keep sexual relations partially in the dark ages in France by stopping people thinking about “what seduction is exactly”.
It continues to be viewed by many, she said, as a central part of French art de vivre based on “asymmetric consent, namely that the man proposes, the woman disposes.”
She was backed by French historian Michelle Perrot, who told France Culture that the country was “poisoned by this idea of gallantry, which is supposedly the expression of French civilisation and culture and good relations between men and women compared to others”.
“I think it is a myth, an interesting and brilliant one but which relies on a particular type of domination men over women in our country. ‘I open the door for you and give you flowers’ is always a way of sidelining women,” she said.
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These views sparked a torrent of angry, sometimes abusive reactions on social media – from women as well as men.
One, called Esmeralda, said: “I want to be offered flowers, chocolates, have the door held open for me and all such things that make me feel good. Get lost leftist feminists!”
“No problem, we’ll slam the door in their faces,” said another male commentator.
Appalled, Sophia Aram, editorialist on France Inter radio, said: “In 2018, I thought that a criticism of French-style gallantry could end up in politeness that is sincere and attentive to all.
“But for that to happen, certain men must drop the condescending and falsely disinterested position which gallantry confers on them over women and some women must give up the exclusivity and passivity that goes with their ‘weak female condition’ and the duty of men to protect them”.
There are tentative signs of change, however, writes Ms Murat.
The first tremor was after the 2011 sex scandal involving Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the ex-International Monetary Fund chief – who was charged and later acquitted of rape. Shockingly, Ms Murat says, many French politicians and intellectuals justified DSK’s behaviour as that of a “libertine”, a gallant “man who loves women”.
That sparked fierce debate in the media and among intellectuals, with some feminists – while not backing DSK – defending a uniquely French art of seduction.
Sociologist Irène Théry called it “a certain way of living and not just thinking that rejects the impasses of the politically correct, wants equal rights of the sexes and the asymmetrical pleasures of seduction, the absolute respect of consent and the delicious surprises of stolen kisses.”
In a riposte, Princeton professor and gender theorist Joan Wallach Scott called such reasoning “an inaccurate characterization of any form of feminism” since it is “predicated on the inequality of women and men.”
Then came the Weinstein affair.
While it sparked soul-searching and the #Metoo movement in America, Ms Murat expressed surprise at the “weakness of the debate in France” where an obsession with erring towards “American Puritanism” prompted a string of high-profile French women including actress Catherine Deneuve to defend men’s right to “hit on” women.
“Rape is a crime, but trying to seduce someone, even persistently or heavy-handedly, is not – nor is men being gentlemanly a macho attack,” said the letter published in the newspaper Le Monde.
Some 200 feminists hit back in Mediapart, saying “by supposedly sounding the alarm over a confusion between harassment, rape and seduction, their text directly produces it”.
Deneuve et al were turning the “victims into executioners” and “reaffirming the power of the dominant by beating a retreat to the conservative order”.
Since then, France has passed a law making street harassment punishable by a fine of up to €750 (£660) while a recent video of a man slapping a woman in a street in Paris sparked nationwide outrage and saw him sentenced to six months in prison.
Ms Murat said that there may be no turning back after Weinstein, as for the first time it exposed a “systemic problem and a global awareness” of male sexual harassment in a country where 99 per cent of convictions for sexual violence were of men and 85 per cent of their victims were women.
But the aged of gallantry may not be over.
Alain Viala, emeritus professor of French at Oxford University and about to publish a comprehensive history of gallantry, said this was merely the latest “violent episode” in a row over a very “French complex” that has rumbled on for the past 30 years – ever since the bicentenary of the French Revolution.
Gallantry’s heyday was in the court of Louis XIV, who threw huge “fêtes galantes” (gallant parties) and spawned an art movement. The trouble started when his “misogynist” rivals corrupted its original purpose from a means to display “wit, elegance and respect” into an excuse to flirt, said Mr Viala.
For a time, the French Revolution put paid to gallantry, which was seen as a remnant of the Ancien Regime. But it survived and has notably been “continually reaffirmed as a national myth and image of patriotism” in the 20th century, he said.
Frédéric Taddei, editor of Lui, the self-styled thinking Frenchman’s version of Playboy, said the main issue today was not gallantry itself but how was employed.
“Gallantry can contribute to keeping women in an inferior position but obviously it also puts them on a pedestal. Both are true at the same time,” he told the Telegraph.
“Ultimately, there has always been in France great belief in equality in seduction. Of course there is prostitution, machismo, harassment, but the French believe that seduction trumps all and can save us. That is deeply rooted in our mentality.”