By Richard Lough
PARIS (Reuters) -An open letter penned by dozens of actresses and other artists in defense of Gerard Depardieu, the cinema giant accused of sexual harassment, has laid bare divisions in France over the #Metoo reckoning with sexism.
Actresses Nathalie Baye and Carole Bouquet – a former partner of Depardieu – as well as singer and former first lady Carla Bruni were among the more than 50 household cultural figures who called Depardieu the victim of a public “lynching”.
Entitled ‘Don’t Cancel Gerard Depardieu’, the letter published this week in conservative daily Le Figaro alleged Depardieu had been the recipient of a “torrent of hatred”.
“We can no longer remain silent in the face of the lynching that has descended upon him,” the letter’s authors wrote.
“Gerard Depardieu is probably the greatest of all actors. When you attack Gerard Depardieu like this, it is art you are attacking.”
Depardieu, 75, who has starred in scores of French-language movies, rising to prominence in 1974 with “Going Places”, has been at the centre of a growing number of sexual assault allegations in recent years.
In March, 2022, investigative magistrates placed Depardieu under formal investigation in one case on suspicion of rape and sexual assault. Actress Charlotte Arnould, 28, later revealed she was behind those accusations, saying she could not bear remaining silent any longer. Since then, more than 10 women have accused Depardieu of sexual violence.
Depardieu has consistently denied any wrongdoing and through his lawyers previously “firmly rejected” the accusations against him.
“Never, absolutely never, have I abused a woman,” he wrote in an Oct. 2 letter also published in Le Figaro. He has not been convicted of any of the accusations against him.
President Emmanuel Macron rallied to the defense of Depardieu shortly before Christmas, when asked in an interview about his culture minister’s plans to review Depardieu’s Legion d’Honneur medal – France’s highest decoration.
Macron condemned the “manhunt” against Depardieu without expressing sympathy for his alleged victims. “He’s an immense actor, a genius of his art,” Macron said. “He makes France proud.”
The president’s remarks and Monday’s letter drew dismay from feminists and younger actresses who decry an attempt to drown out the voices of victims of sexual violence and undermine the #Metoo movement against sexual harassment in France.
“There’s a generation that still doesn’t understand this societal evolution,” Murielle Reus, vice president of #MeTooMedia which campaigns against sexism and sexual misconduct in the media, said in a radio interview this week.
Critics of the #Metoo campaign in France accuse it of a puritanical fight fuelled by a contempt for men and the art of seduction.
Catherine Deneuve, one of France’s best known actresses, was among 100 French women who in 2018 wrote a newspaper column accusing the #Metoo campaign of going too far.
“We defend a right to pester, which is vital to sexual freedom,” they said.
Earlier this month, public broadcaster France 2 ran a documentary, Depardieu: The Fall of an Ogre, which showed the actor making lewd comments to women during a 2018 trip to North Korea and featured interviews with Arnould and another actress, Helene Darras, who in September filed a lawsuit against Depardieu alleging sexual assault.
Berenice Hamidi, a lecturer at the Lumiere Lyon 2 university said it was unsurprising the global #Metoo movement was born out of the U.S. cinema industry, where she said livelihoods can be precarious and the boundaries of fact and fiction blurred.
“There is a real cultural exception in French cinema, which refuses to consider acts committed by artists as violence and to condemn them,” Hamidi told franceinfo radio.
Depardieu told RTL radio he considered those who wrote this week’s open letter to be “very courageous”.
(Reporting by Richard LoughEditing by Alexandra Hudson)