In "Le Génie Lesbien", French militant feminist and Paris councillor Alice Coffin exposes masculine domination in France. In a country with a universalist feminist tradition, the book has been criticised for separatism. But the author maintains it’s time to take a mental break from men.
Coffin’s autobiographical essay traces her path as a feminist activist: from growing up gay without role models, launching France’s “OUT d’or” visibility awards, founding the French association for LGBTI journalists (AJL) through to her travels in the US researching representation of LGBTI issues in the media.
The book is also a celebration of all things lesbian in a country where “ça ne se fait pas” (it’s not the done thing).
“We’re often presented as kind of a nightmare, a calamity, as if you wouldn’t want to be a lesbian,” laughs Coffin.
She believes it’s also “very important to say being a lesbian is a kind of a joy, a very positive way of being in the world”.
The book’s title seeks to reclaim the very notion of genius, which had always been presented as a masculine concept.
“All my childhood, my teenage years, I used to think only men could be geniuses [because] I was only getting acquainted with musicians, writers, painters that were men.
“Getting older, I discovered not only all those women who had been erased from cultural history, but also that many were lesbians.”
She describes the sense of wonder on discovering that many of the nine French feminists who founded the Women's Liberation Movement (MLF) in 1970, were gay.
“It’s kind of magic when you realise that your idols are lesbians too, but at the same time it’s sad to think that it’s never said.”
This interview first featured in the Spotlight on France podcast.
In 2018, Coffin spent time on a Fulbright scholarship in the US comparing how LGBTI issues are covered in the media. The book describes how lesbian culture can be a source of pride and celebration in the US, whereas France operates what Coffin terms “homo-omerta”.
“Coming out is especially difficult in public life in France”, she says. And when you have the courage to do so, as former Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoé did in 1998, “you say sorry at the same time”.
France's former Digital Minister Mounir Mahjoubi came out in May 2018.
When the 2012/2013 debates on same-sex marriage led to a rise in homophobic attacks, militants like Coffin tried to get the support of gay public figures.
“We contacted them directly saying ‘please come out of the closet, we need you’, and that’s when I saw how terrified they were. The blockages on coming out are terrible.”
Public and private divide
The main sticking point, Coffin says, is the strong separation between private and public life.
“In France there is this cultural background that as a minority you need to be discrete.”
It applies not just to sexual minorities, but to racial and religious ones too.
“If you want to be heard, to have a public discourse, you need to act as if you’re a French citizen with no specific life, no specific identity,” Coffin regrets.
There’s a deep-seated fear “that minorities are threatening the Republic, the nation,” she explained.
Meanwhile the government’s planned law against religious separatism has added to a climate in which any community-based ideology is seen as potentially problematic.
A ‘form of apartheid’
The book has caused an outcry among France’s political class, and it’s largely focused on the following short passage.
”It’s not enough to help one another, we have to erase [men] from our minds, from our pictures, from our representations,” Coffin writes. “I no longer read books by men, I don’t watch their movies, I don’t listen to their music.”
The passage continues with the words “at least I try not to,” but most of the media chose not to include that.
Interpreted as an attempt to eliminate half the country's population, the phrase has earned Coffin death threats online. While condemning such violence, several prominent women politicians have been among Coffin's harshest critics.
Questioned about the controversial passage, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said “I’m a feminist, a universalist and I’ve spent my life fighting for equal rights for women, not for supremacy, including women over men."
The minister for gender equality, Elisabeth Moreno, told an online newspaper: “We will not advance our society by replacing injustice and domination with rejection and exclusion."
Former women’s rights minister Marlène Schiappa meanwhile said Coffin was encouraging “a form of apartheid”.
Coffin is a professional activist and provocation goes with the territory, but she is still shocked by the level of violence she encountered.
“It’s not that I’m eliminating all men, it’s just that I know their books, I know their music and I know so little about women’s literature, women’s cinema. This is an attempt to get access to other kinds of thinking, other minds.”
The level of panic, with men asking her if she would still be willing to read their latest tome, is further evidence of “andro-obsession” she says.
“It’s the panic of men, that they would be erased from the public sphere. But we’re so far from this! All the major literary public prizes, all the cinema festivals in France promote men, men, men.”
She also insists she was speaking as an individual, as a woman outraged by sexual and sexist violence in France, a country where, in 2019, 146 women were victims of femicide, and where women signed a petition against the #MeToo movement.
“I’m not saying everybody should do this, I was only saying this is my way of doing, my way of surviving in this very patriarchal society. That it provoked such outrage says a lot about where we are at.”
Coffin’s much-quoted passage ended with the words: “[Men] have already infested my mind. I’m preserving myself by avoiding them. Let’s begin like that. Later on, they will be able to return”.
Few media relayed the nuance, but it finally drew the attention of popular chat show host Laurent Ruquier. Having initially mocked the book on the basis of a very negative review, he then invited Coffin on his show and did a mea culpa.
“I’m sorry, I hadn’t read your book,” he told her. “I see it’s a lot more nuanced than I thought. It's made me think.”
Coffin has also had a flurry of support on social media from many women readers using the hashtag #choisirlesfemmes or #readwomen where women post their photos of bookshelves full of female authors.
The outrage over Coffin’s alleged call to “eliminate men” came on the back of a heated summer.
In June, she was elected a Paris councillor with the Green party and used her position to push for the resignation of the powerful Paris culture attaché Christophe Girard.
Coffin and other feminist militants considered that Girard, a longstanding supporter of writer Gabriel Matzneff who is facing charges of promoting paedophilia, was unfit for public office. Girard is also alleged to have sexually abused a minor, a charge he denies.
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo accused Coffin of staging a witch-hunt, but Girard did step down. Once again Coffin had to be given police protection following death threats.
“I’m new in politics and indeed I come from an activist background so when I arrived I kept the way I used to act,” said Coffin. “When I see something violent against women or others, I react.”
Some members of the Paris council told her she’d overstepped the mark and wasn’t behaving like a politician.
“Many of my colleagues from other parties told me, ‘Your place is not here among us, you belong to street activism.’ Of course I think it’s nonsense. It’s a way for them to protect the way they’ve been doing politics for years. Part of that meant protecting men in power who behave terribly with women, or the population in general.”
Coffin maintains that the outcry over the book and the Girard episode reflects how deeply divided France is. “I’ve received so much hate and criticism and at the same time so much support from people who said, ‘We never get to be heard, to have people representing us in politics.'
“It’s 2020 and we have to think about who are we in France today, how can we live together. What’s very sad is that even the discussion [about male domination] is not possible.”
Future role model
On the issue of living as a lesbian in 2020 the situation is a good deal brighter now than it was for Coffin when she was growing up.
“Things have changed so much over the last 20 years. If you look at TV or newspapers, a teenager nowadays will have a better chance than I had to get these kind of role models, to have direct access to lesbian culture.
She may even be turning into a role model herself.
“I had not anticipated it, but many of the messages I receive are from very young women who tell me how much the book means to them and how it’s changing their direction and the way they project themselves into the future. Obviously I’m very happy about that.”
She’s not sure the battle against male domination will be won in her lifetime though, and cites French journalist Françoise Giroud: “Women will be really equal to men the day an important post is given to an incompetent woman”.
Le Génie Lesbien is published by Grasset.