From Paris with love

Published

Credit: Emily Menger-Davies

Emily Menger-Davies
Writer

Polanski, Me Too and Corona: a Glasgow Guardian writer on Erasmus in France discusses the last month in Paris.

It was the Monday morning after the weekend of the Césars scandal at the Sorbonne University and, written on the toilet wall in black marker pen were the underlined words “Polanski Violeur” (Polanski Rapist). This outrage was felt across France, written not only on toilet walls but in the news and on social media pages following the shock win of Roman Polanski for best director at the César awards.

At the start of my year abroad in September, I went to see Portrait of a Young Lady on Fire starring Adèle Haenel and Noémie Merlant and was bowled over by this ground-breaking film with its almost entirely female cast and beautiful portrayal of a same sex love story. Six months later, at the César awards, the film received 11 nominations and won the award for best cinematography, but director Céline Sciamma was snubbed for best director as Roman Polanski took home the prize for his film J’accuse, an epic about the Dreyfus Affair, arguably the most famous miscarriage of justice in French history. However, the bitter irony of Polanski’s defence of justice hasn’t gone unremarked as the director is still wanted in the US for the rape of a 13 year old girl.

Following Polanski’s win, actor Adele Haenel stormed out of the awards shouting “La honte!” (shame!). Haenel has made it her mission to use her powers for good and, over the last few months, has become unashamedly outspoken about sexual violence in the film industry. Haenel spoke out herself last year about the abuse she suffered from director Christophe Ruggia while she was shooting her first film The Devils at the age of just 12. Haenel chose to speak out to Marine Turchi, an investigative journalist for Mediapart who is compiling a series of reports into cases of sexual assault. In an interview for Mediapart, (available in full on YouTube with English subtitles) Haenel is visibly nervous but absolutely determined as she talks about her decision to speak out after so many years and says that this was followed by the news that Ruggia would once again be directing a film with teenagers. For both Ruggia and Polanski, Haenel decided enough was enough and that, in the age of Me Too, it was time to challenge the power structures that have been protecting Polanski since 1978 when he admitted to the rape of a child. Since this date, Polanski has been seeking refuge in France which has refused to extradite him to the US, and the director has not only continued to work but also to receive awards. Since 1978, Polanski has won at the Golden Globes, the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs, including an Oscar for Best Director in 2002 for his film The Pianist.

The week after the awards, I noticed that the writing on the toilet wall at the Sorbonne had been scrubbed off by the cleaners, but a stubborn shadow of the words remained on the white tiles. However, this wasn’t the only protest written on the walls of Paris. Plastered around various locations, feminist activists have put up pieces of white paper with statistics about femicide in France written in black and red ink. Femicide (the killing of a woman by her current or ex-partner) rates reached a troublingly high level last year, with 137 women killed in 2019, giving France one of the highest rates of femicide in Europe. The feminist pressure group “Nous Toutes” have been campaigning for the government to do more to protect women from domestic violence and argue that gender inequality is deeply ingrained in French culture; from the 1804 Napoleonic code which stated that women were the property of men to the ways in which grammar rules favour the masculine gender as the dominant one. As an Erasmus student at the Sorbonne, it also didn’t escape my notice that in my literature and cinema courses, there wasn’t a single female writer or director on the programme. On my last day at the Sorbonne, I noted that the graffitist had reasserted their protest on the wall just in time for the closure of the university in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

Events in France regarding the Coronavirus escalated alarmingly quickly. On Thursday 12 March all of the students from my accommodation huddled around the television in the study room to watch Macron as he looked us each in the eye to announce that our universities would be shutting their doors on Monday (but please, please still go out to vote this week in the elections, he added stoically). Friday was spent in a daze of booking tickets home and staring into an open suitcase working out what to take and what to leave behind and, on Saturday, it was announced that all venues such as restaurants, bars and cinemas would be closing. On Sunday, the sun shone obliviously, and people sunned themselves in a kind of quiet anxiety in the parks. Rumours from a friend of a friend who worked at a news station that stage four – total lockdown and shutting of borders – would soon be announced sent panic rippling through the wave of students advancing their tickets to get home. On Monday, the last of my accommodation emptied out onto the now deserted pavements of Paris usually crowded with café chairs and, just five hours after I arrived home in the UK, Macron announced total lockdown.

What happens when the world has to stop for a while? Many believe a complete political and economic collapse is now unavoidable as Covid-19 forces us to press pause on life. As so-called “low-skilled workers” become the most important people keeping society ticking over, what will this mean for equality in all its forms? The world as we know it is changing but, for now, the writing on the wall remains.