On 11 May 2020, France started easing its restrictions following a first national lockdown. To avoid a resurgence of COVID-19 cases, a host of rules were put in place. One of them was that group meetings larger than 10 were prohibited. Despite these restrictions, thousands of individuals came out in the streets across the nation in July 2020 to protest against the appointments of two ministers in the new Macron administration.
This article explores what ignited this social upheaval, why these protests mattered and what they mean for future activism. This piece sits within the Special issue by exploring how social movements and activism may evolve in a restricted public space due to strict health regulations.
Public office and misogyny
Protestors took issue with the appointments of the Minister of Interior, Gérald Darmanin, and the Justice Minister, Eric Dupond-Moretti. Both were already known in the French public sphere. Darmanin served in the previous administration as the Minister of Public Finance. Dupond-Moretti is a famous defense attorney, regularly invited on talk-shows and a prolific writer. What made their appointments so controversial was their respective reputation of misogyny.
Darmanin is embroiled in a sexual abuse case. He is accused of demanding sexual favours in exchange for clearing a criminal record back in 2009. Dupond-Moretti has directly criticized the #MeToo movement. He stated that there are women who like to have a ‘sofa promotion’. He has also questioned the moral standings of feminists and held a variety of sexists messages. Both of these men received particular public and media scrutiny of their views and actions because of their positions of power.
As the highest ranking officials in their respective domains, one wonders whether both officials will work towards tackling sexual harassment seriously. This was a promise made during Macron’s election campaign. He made repeated claims on his engagements for gender parity, to better address sexual violence and to end gender discrimination. It is then difficult to see how the country’s top judicial and police officials will act comprehensively and swiftly on these matters with their previous actions and statements. Accordingly, Macron lost an important part of his credibility.
Despite the public outcry, Macron defended and maintained both appointments. Macron could have easily asked for them to be removed1. He had previously done so when ministers became embroiled in corruption affairs. For example, the Minister for the Environment, Francois de Rugy, was replaced after being found of misallocating public funds for personal use. Macron’s stance differs here because he claims that, in particular for the Justice Minister, Darmanin benefits from the presumption of innocence. This is not an unimportant principle. It is one long-held tradition which ensures the good functioning of the judicial system. However, maintaining him in office sends a powerful symbol minimising Macron’s importance of tackling gender-based issues in the highest circles of public office. By firing de Rugy but maintaining Darmanin, Macron creates a hierarchy of ‘issues’ which matter on the public stage. He showcases that he prioritizes corruption as being ‘grave’, incompatible with public office, over sexual harassment as ‘bening’, not incompatible with public office.
Past and contemporary activism in France
The social movement protesting against the ministerial appointments flows from the liberation of voices following the #Metoo movement in France. Then, the translated hashtag #balancetonporc, i.e. name your pig, was focused not only on sharing stories, but also on naming and shaming. Individuals who used social media were strongly motivated to bring the perpetrators to justice. It also helped start a national conversation on sexual violence. However, this call was not unanimously shared across French society. For example, culture icon Catherine Deneuve advocated for the right of men to annoy women. She embodies the strong resistance against altering the existing moral fabric in France. These are regularly manifested through protests against same-sex marriage and surrogacy.
The feminist protests of July 2020 differ from #balancetonporc in one important way : it was held in-person, rather than online. The physical dimension of the protest, in a restricted health context is important. Protestors were not discouraged by the national imposition that public gatherings were illegal. Across the nation, public gatherings took place to express their frustration, anger and disappointment with the appointment.
Protestors made their disappointments clear. Signs were made mocking Macron’s political tagline ‘En Marche’ (let’s move forward) to ‘a culture du viol En marche’ (rape culture moving forward). The hastagh #LaHonte (i.e. #TheShame) also trended on Twitter. They asked for renewed transparency and accountability. In this particularly complex health environment, being out in the streets is a political move in itself because it braves ongoing governmental restrictions. Activists are willing to put themselves in danger, legally : they could be arrested by police, financially : they could receive a fine, and for their health : they expose themselves to COVID-19. These protests matter then because they showcase a resilience to question the political disregard for gender issues in the highest spheres of public office.
Future of global social activism during COVID-19
The Covid-19 pandemic makes protesting outside particularly complicated. Restrictions are key to curb the spread of the virus, especially in hotspots. They are put in place for a reason and should be respected as strictly as possible. There is thus a tension which arises about when one should break it to voice their disagreement. Right to protest is enshrined in French law but can be suspended during ‘crises’. Does this mean that one should refrain from expressing discontent physically until the public health conditions allow it ? Activists in Poland and in Belarus, just to name a few, did not think that they should wait.
A compromise may be envisioned. One should restrict as much as possible social gatherings for ‘fun’, for as long as authorities advise. However, when political issues are at stake which one feels deeply committed to, then public protests may be held in person which respect social distancing rules. For example, protesters to Nentyahou’s actions in Israel have shown how a ‘socially distant’ protest could look like. Other initiatives should be sought and evaluated as possible middle-grounds. Social contestation will need to temporarily adapt to strict health regulations. However, it is not to be discounted as an important means to voice one’s opinion and seek change.
- In France, it is the prerogative of the Prime Minister to appoint and remove Ministers. However, it is the President who nominates the Prime Minister, and he is the one who confirms, or not, the government proposal from the Prime Minister.