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With ‘I Hate Men,’ a French Feminist Touches a NervePauline Harmange is adjusting to the success and backlash of her debut book, one of a handful of titles from France that suggest a more frank approach to sexism and gender violence.
Pauline Harmange made a splash with her first book, “I Hate Men,” in France. An English translation comes out this month.Credit...Ksenia Kuleshova for The New York Times
By Laura Cappelle
Jan. 10, 2021
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PARIS — If it hadn’t been for a man, Pauline Harmange’s literary debut, “I Hate Men,” might have gone unnoticed.
The feminist essay, which makes a case for shunning men as a legitimate defense mechanism against widespread misogyny, was initially published in French by the nonprofit press Monstrograph. It only printed 400 copies. On the day it was released last August, however, an employee of France’s ministry for gender equality, Ralph Zurmély, emailed Monstrograph from his government account.
The book was obviously, he wrote, “an ode to misandry.” Zurmély, who hadn’t read the book, likened it to “sex-based incitement to hatred,” and concluded: “I ask that you immediately withdraw this book from your catalog, subject to legal prosecution.”
The threat backfired. No sooner was it made public than “I Hate Men” became a cause célèbre in the French news media — and brought attention to misandry, the dislike or mistrust of men, as a social phenomenon. Since Monstrograph couldn’t keep up with demand, a major French publisher, Seuil, won a bidding war to reprint the book, which has sold 20,000 copies since. The translation rights for 17 languages have been sold. In the United States, HarperCollins will release “I Hate Men,” translated by Natasha Lehrer, on Jan. 19.
The French ministry of gender equality, in the meantime, has taken pains to distance itself from Zurmély’s threat. A spokeswoman for the current minister, Élisabeth Moreno, said that she “firmly condemned this isolated act,” and added that Zurmély was in the process of being moved to a different job, “at his request.”
For Harmange, who is just 26, the entire experience has been akin to whiplash. “It’s launching my career, which I thought was a quasi-inaccessible dream,” she said during a video interview in December from her home in Lille, in northern France. Yet with the attention has come harassment on social media, with daily insults now arriving in several languages.
“There are moments when I tell myself that I didn’t sign up for this,” she said.
“I Hate Men” started in 2019 as a blog post about feminist burnout. Harmange had graduated a year earlier with a degree in communications and was freelancing as a copywriter. Her personal essays, on subjects ranging from self-care to environmentalism, accrued a small but steady following, helping her make ends meet via Tipeee, a French alternative to the crowdfunding service Patreon.
Monstrograph’s editors, Martin Page and Coline Pierré, saw the post and asked her if she would turn it into a book. For Harmange, who volunteers with an association supporting rape victims, misandry had come to feel like the best concept to express her frustration with structural gender violence. “It was an insult you would get as a feminist,” she said. “Whatever you say, as soon as you criticize men, you’re accused of being a misandrist. That’s when I realized: Actually, that’s exactly it.”
The short, fluid “I Hate Men” is part of a recent revival of anti-male sentiment in French feminist literature. Like Harmange, Alice Coffin, an elected councilor for the city of Paris, touched on misandry in “Lesbian Genius,” published by Grasset in late September (translation rights in English have yet to be sold). While the book is primarily a retelling of her experience as a lesbian journalist and activist, paired with a series of interviews with American L.G.B.T. journalists, a section is devoted to “men’s war” on women. Coffin argues that art made by men is “an extension of the system of domination” and writes that she avoids it.
The frankness of Coffin and Harmange’s work has touched a nerve in France. The country has been slow to reckon with the #MeToo movement, in part because of a generational divide between older, establishment feminists and younger, more forceful activists, who point to a lack of progress.
“Feminists have spent a lot of time and energy reassuring men that no, we don’t really hate them, that they’re welcome,” Harmange said. “Not much has happened in exchange.”
Disillusionment with French politics has contributed to the shift in the younger generation. While the French president Emmanuel Macron once declared gender equality would be “the great cause of my term,” his government has been criticized for putting few feminist policies in place. Last year, Mr. Macron appointed a man who had previously been accused of rape, Gérald Darmanin, as interior minister.
In an interview at her home in Paris, Coffin said men have “had their chance” to push for equality. “They could have taken the hints a long time ago, but apparently it hasn’t created much enthusiasm.”
In that context, Harmange and Coffin argue that putting sisterhood above appeasing men is a logical next step. The historian Colette Pipon, who wrote a book about the emergence of misandry on the fringes of French feminism in the 1970s, describes it as a nonviolent response to sexism and misogyny, adding that it had strategic value for feminist movements.
“Often the most radical women make the others look reasonable and allow them to achieve change,” she said.
Some women still believe that calling out men as a group does more harm than good. In an opinion piece for the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, the philosopher Élisabeth Badinter criticized the “binary thinking” of “belligerent neofeminism.” Others support Harmange and Coffin, yet stop short of calling themselves misandrists.
Rokhaya Diallo, a prominent Black journalist and activist for racial and gender equality, said in a phone interview that she didn’t want to “center my activism around men.”
Diallo noted that it is also harder for women of color to follow Harmange and Coffin’s lead. “When you’re a nonwhite feminist, it will quickly be analyzed as a kind of hatred of white men,” she said. “Misandry is going to be racialized.”
The threat of near-constant harassment is real. Coffin said that on the worst days over the past few months, she had been targeted by “thousands upon thousands” of messages a day. She has filed multiple police reports, including three for death threats, and at one point was placed under police protection.
Harmange has also received rape and death threats. Both writers said the worst of the abuse came after prestigious news media organizations threw their weight behind critics of the women’s work, as when a journalist for the radio station Europe 1 called Coffin’s writings “a genocidal moral project” in October.
As a result, Harmange, a digital native who partly credits social media for her political awakening as a student, has had to take breaks from Twitter and tried to limit herself to “five minutes a day” on the site.
Their calls to sorority haven’t gone unheard, however. Expressions of support have mitigated the effect of the abuse, and Coffin pointed to the “exhilaration” of publishing her experiences as a woman and a lesbian: “Language is so important to free the mind.”
And the fact that writers like them are being embraced by the small French publishing world — dogged by accusations of cronyism and lack of diversity — suggests some lines are moving. The novelist Chloé Delaume, a self-described misandrist, was awarded the prestigious Médicis Prize in November. In a phone interview, she said that when she was new to the literary scene in the 2000s, misandry was “seen as a joke.”
Harmange now has three other books slated for publication, including a novel she wrote before “I Hate Men,” called “Limoges to Die,” coming this year or 2022, and an essay about her difficult experience with abortion, scheduled for 2022.
Above all, the success of “I Hate Men” means that she can pay her bills. For the first time in years, Harmange said that she didn’t have to wonder if she would have to move back in with her parents.
“I’ve never been brave enough to be a role model, an ‘inspiring’ woman,” she wrote two years ago in the blog post that led to “I Hate Men.” For a generation of French feminists, she may have become one.