The letter, signed by women from the entertainment, publishing and academic fields, argued that supporters of the #MeToo movement and a French counterpart have gone too far by publicly prosecuting private experiences and that they have created a totalitarian climate.
“Rape is a crime,” the letter said. “But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.’’
In a line that drew particular outrage, the letter encouraged women “not to feel forever traumatized” by what the writers dismissed as relatively minor forms of sexual harassment. They cited, as an example, men who masturbate by rubbing themselves against women on buses or subways.
They said women could “consider it as the expression of a great sexual misery, or even as a nonevent.”
Many women said they were offended by the comment.
“When I was 19, on the bus, a guy ejaculated on my coat,” Nadia Daam, a French journalist, wrote on Twitter, where dozens of women recounted abusive experiences in public spaces.
“I don’t know if it was a ‘nonevent,’ or the expression of ‘sexual misery,’” Ms. Daam continued. “But I threw my coat away and didn’t take the bus for two years.”
Ms. Daam’s tweets were among the many incredulous or furious reactions to the letter. Many women found its arguments antiquated and disingenuous.
Caroline De Haas was among the French feminists who wrote that the letter reminded them of “the embarrassing colleague or the tiresome uncle who doesn’t understand what is happening.’’
Others, however, welcomed the letter as a necessary pushback against what they view as a brand of radical feminism imported from the other side of the Atlantic.
Sarah Chiche, a psychoanalyst and writer who was one of the letter’s main authors, accused the #MeToo movement of promoting an ideology “that values victimization.” She also said in an email that the movement was showing signs of excess.
“Men whose only fault was sending a slightly salacious text message or email were being treated, on social networks, exactly the same way as sexual criminals, like rapists,” she said.
The letter was the latest sign that the global outcry against sexual misconduct and sexual violence in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations is meeting cultural resistance in France.
But there are indications, too, that some of the resistance is being chipped away and that French attitudes toward gender relations and workplace harassment have shifted.
Referring to the signers and supporters of the public letter, Geneviève Fraisse, a French philosopher who writes about feminist thought, said, “They are in the minority, but they had not understood that they were in the minority.’’
These views were majority opinions “when D.S.K. happened,” she added, referring to the sexual assault scandal that engulfed Dominique Strauss-Kahn in 2011, when he was managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
French newspapers have been awash with commentary supporting or criticizing the letter. Le Monde splashed three op-ed essays and an interview across its opinion pages on Thursday, under the tag “The fractures of feminism.”
Libération ran photos on its front page of Ms. Deneuve and two other women who endorsed the letter, with the headline: “Sexual freedom threatened, really?”
An agent for Ms. Deneuve said Thursday that she did not want to comment further.
Ten years ago, “an op-ed like that one would have had a lot more support in France,” Ms. De Haas said in a telephone interview.
The French equivalent to the #MeToo movement, known as #BalanceTonPorc (which translates as #ExposeYourPig), “has had consequences that I think are very profound,” she said.
The debate even reached the highest levels of French government. Marlène Schiappa, France’s junior minister for gender equality, called the letter a potpourri of ideas, some of which were “not uninteresting,” while others were “profoundly shocking.”
“We have immense difficulty convincing young women that when a man rubs his genitals against a woman in the métro without her consent, it is an act of sexual assault that can lead to three years in prison and a 75,000 euro fine,” she told France Culture radio on Wednesday.
Ms. Schiappa is working on legislation the government hopes to get approved this year that would create fines for street harassment and catcalling.
But Christophe Castaner, a colleague of Ms. Schiappa’s in the government, told France Info radio that the letter made valid points about the risks of a society “where some words are banned, where humor is banned, where schoolboy jokes can be banned.”
“I’m always afraid of the standardization of attitudes, of a unique model of behaving, of a sort of Americanization that we know about, where a man today can never ride an elevator with a woman,” said Mr. Castaner, who is also the head of La République en Marche, the centrist party of President Emmanuel Macron.
His view of the United States as a country with an absurdly puritanical streak is not new.
Supporters of #MeToo insist, though, that critics like Mr. Castaner, by exaggerating the possibility of a more repressive culture, diminish the significance of the harm inflicted on women by abusive men.
“This supposed Americanization of relationships is something that anti-feminists were already warning against 30 years ago,” said Ms. Fraisse, the philosopher.
Eric Brion, the former head of a French television channel, was accused by a journalist in October of having sent her a salacious and disrespectful text message.
She then created the #BalanceTon Porc movement.
“Several weeks after the publication of this much talked about hashtag, like many others, I have become aware of the scale of the work that is ahead of us,” Mr. Brion wrote in an op-ed in Le Monde in December, acknowledging and apologizing for the text.
But he also noted that his text had little to do with the accusations against Mr. Weinstein.
“I am simply asking for the right to truth and to nuance,” Mr. Brion said.
Michelle Perrot, a prominent specialist of women’s history at the Université Paris Diderot, said in an interview with Le Monde on Thursday that she thought the letter raised valid points, mainly about the risk of “an insidious moral order” that might censor creativity and desire in the name of the protection of women.
But she said that accusing the #MeToo movement of confining women to the role of victim was misguided.
“On the contrary, this protest, both individual and collective, makes them actors who refuse and resist a pressure, a domination that they do not want,” she said.
It is unclear where the majority of French men and women stand on these issues. Ms. De Haas said she thought the letter reflected “stereotypes that are held by many people in France.”
But Marilyn Baldeck, a legal professional who trains employees about sexual harassment in the workplace, said that “when we give these people concrete examples of sexual harassment, they tend to change their minds and acknowledge how harmful some situations can be.”
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