French Press Review 12 January 2018

Fake news and the row over sexual harassment continue to dominate the front pages of the Paris dailies. President Emmanuel Macron wants to control the way information is carried by social media during election periods. Some rights groups are worried about freedom of speech. And why supporting men's right to flirt is a mistake no feminist should make.


Eight of every 10 French people are in favour of a law to control "fake news", according to the conservative paper Le Figaro.

Earlier this month, while wishing the nation's journalists a happy new year, President Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to bring in a law to control the way dis- and misinformation are spread by the internet and social media, especially during the run-up to elections.

That would, for example, have saved us from learning that hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon owned a watch worth 18,000 euros, or that Emmanuel Macron washed his hands after shaking the grubby mit of a mere worker, or that mainstream right-winger François Fillion and far-right figure Marion Maréchal-Le Pen were as friendly as spring pigs.

All those stories did the rounds, often with supporting photos, during the last presidential campaign. All were, needless to remark, absolutely false.

The reaction to the president's proposal to clean up social media was predictable, says Le Figaro, with thousands of messages bleating about the spectre of state censorship. But that's because those who use the internet to spread fake news are also very good at monopolising any debate, especially on a topic which risks curtailing their freedom to manipulate the rest of us.

Hence the significance of Le Figaro's opinion poll, based on questions posed to 1,004 real people. Seventy-nine percent of them believe that it is essential to take steps to ensure the accuracy of the information carried by social media and the internet, with the minority 21 percent worrying that such an effort will threathen our rights to freedom of speech.

One worrying finding of this opinion poll is that, irrespective of age, social group or political leaning, one third of those questioned admit that they have, themselves, forwarded a false news story to their friends. Shame on them.

Fight over male flirting continues

The girls are still swinging handbags with great enthusiasm.

In case you missed an earlier episode, first there was the letter from 100 women in Le Monde, calling for men's right to flirt to be protected in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein saga. Then there was a response from 30 serious feminists on the France Televisions website, condemning the sisters for minimising the seriousness of sexual crime, attempting to reverse the force of the debate opened by the Weinstein case, and showing scant respect for the victims.

And now it's the turn of the feminist historian Christine Bard who says, categorically and again in Le Monde, that the first 100 were wrong. The letter was to be expected, says Bard, and is a classically anti-feminist document, with its accusations of censorship, even totalitariamism, its claims that sexual liberty is under threat, its fear of a growing hatred of men and sexuality, its ritual victimisation of women.

If the original letter, signed but not written by, among others, the actress Catherine Deneuve, appears to be inspired by a desire for greater freedom, says Christine Bard, in fact it's the sexual freedom of men that is the central question. Men must be free to flirt with women because that's a basic and harmless motor of the traditional relationship between the sexes.

Wrong, says Christine Bard. Any plea for the sexual liberty of men essentially minimises, even legitimises, macho and violent behaviour.

The fact is that our sexual behaviour is shaped by the culture in which we live, and that it is possible to change people's mentalities. The letter did not help. But since feminism is a revolutionary movement, we should not be surprised that the debate it inspires is so frequently contested and even condemned. Even by some women, who are as subject as us blokes to social and cultural conditioning.

In 50 years, says Christine Bard, we'll find the current debate about the "Deneuve letter" as funny as the 19th-century discussion about whether or not women should be allowed to ride bicycles. Or vote.

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