A novel depicting France’s #MeToo movement by the French punk feminist writer Virginie Despentes, irreverently titled Cher Connard – which roughly translates as Dear Arsehole – has become a bestseller, prompting a debate about sexual harassment and equality in the social media age.
The story opens as Oscar, a novelist in his 40s, insults an actor on Instagram about the way she has aged. The film star, Rebecca, sends a furious reply just as Oscar is accused online by a young female press officer of sexual harassment years earlier.
Oscar’s dismissive approach to what he calls “this #MeToo thing” and his initial incomprehension at being “#MeToo-ised” triggers an examination of modern French society through the alternate viewpoints of the accused man, the actor and the young accuser, as they write to each other or publish online. It is set against a backdrop of Covid lockdowns, Zoom meetings and addiction.
The novel was hailed as an exploration of France’s sometimes difficult relationship with the #MeToo movement. The accusations of sexual misconduct against the US film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017 galvanised women across the world to speak out.
France issued its own riposte #Balancetonporc (#Squealonyourpig) but also went through a row when some public figures, including the actor Catherine Deneuve, signed an open letter criticising the “new puritanism”.
Since then, high-profile men have faced allegations of sexual harassment and abuse, including the television presenter Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, who has denied wrongdoing and launched legal action for slander against 16 women.
Despentes’ take on the issue had been eagerly awaited. After bursting on to the literary scene in 1994 with her debut novel, Baise-Moi – a rape revenge story that she began writing at the age of 23 – she redefined French feminism with her 2006 manifesto, King Kong Theory, in which she told of being raped at 17 while hitchhiking with a friend.
The working-class daughter of postal workers from Nancy in north-eastern France, Despentes became French literature’s “voice of the marginalised”. Her most recent work, the scathing Paris trilogy Vernon Subutex, led to her being labelled a “rock’n’roll Zola” after the French novelist Émile Zola.
The literary critic Elisabeth Philippe said of Despentes on the French radio show Le masque et la Plume: “She’s the French writer who best understands our era.”
Critics were surprised that Despentes gave a voice to a fictional male character accused by #MeToo, but Philippe said her skill was to “get inside the most unlikeable characters” and explore “nuance” and contradictions. The French newspaper Le Monde described the book as “luminous” if also dense with ideas.
There was surprise last week when Despentes’ bestselling novel was not longlisted for the major Goncourt prize. The organisers hastily said she was ruled out because she had been a long-running jury member in the past. She should win the Nobel prize instead, said the Goncourt jury head.
In her only TV interview, Despentes said her writing is always about trying to “understand violence”.