French women sports journalists call ‘time's up’ on sexism in the profession

·6-min read

A recent French TV documentary in which women sports journalists shared their experiences of rampant harassment and discrimination on the job has triggered a #MeToo moment in France. The abuse isn't new but what's changed is that people are finally listening says the collective of women sports journalists (FJS).

In I’m not a slut, I’m a journalist, broadcast by television channel Canal Plus, more than a dozen women sports journalists talked openly about the derogatory comments and lurid abuse they routinely face both in and out of the newsroom, on and off the field and on social media.

“When you get messages everyday telling you ‘you’re rubbish’, you start believing it,” said Charlotte Namura-Guizonne, who formerly hosted a popular Sunday football show.

"I was the only one in the team getting comments about my appearance, saying I was ugly, had a big arse, or that they wanted to screw me. I got rape threats. It was so violent, I would go home and cry.”

The documentary also revealed harassment within the profession.

On her return from maternity leave in 2018, rugby expert Clémentine Sarlat described being forced "to step aside" from her new job co-presenting a prestigious sports programme. "You understand, with the lights and cameras on you, you wouldn't look good next to the presenter," she was told.

This story first featured in the Spotlight on France podcast. Listen to the audio here.

'Not there to be pretty'

Tiffany Henne, a 29-year old seasoned sports journalist, talked about years of harassment in her early 20's when her chief editor at the time had made assumptions about her sexuality, teasing her in public and trying to get her to admit to being a lesbian.

"It came to a head when he cornered me in a room and tried to get me to confess to camera,” she recounted. “He wouldn’t let me out until I had.

“People can’t understand how you put up with that, but you’re young, he’s your boss, you’re not thinking straight.”

When there was a change of management she was encouraged to reveal what had happened and her former boss was sanctioned.

“I hope not all women are suffering such serious forms of harassment,” Henne told RFI, “but the fact is we don’t know of any women who’ve been able to avoid this, even if it’s just sexist comments like ‘your arse looks great in those jeans’ or ‘you’d look prettier if you smiled more’.

“But I’m not there to be pretty, I take my job seriously so I have a serious expression. They would never ask such things of men.”

#Menesout

The documentary caused a stir. Sports minister Roxana Maracineanu, the first world champion in French swimming history, and who also worked as a sports commentator on television, said she was not surprised by it. In an interview with France Info radio she thanked the women for “speaking out, raising this subject as it has been in other sectors in France” saying it marked a “turning point” in French society for women’s rights.

But the scandal also focused on what broadcaster Canal Plus had left out: a six-minute interview with its own star football pundit, Pierre Ménès, in which he was accused of harassing two of his fellow female sports journalists, including the documentary-maker Marie Portolano.

Portolano confronted him over an incident in 2016 when he lifted her skirt and patted her buttocks, in full view of the studio audience. The segment was broadcast the following day on a primetime TV chat show with Ménès present. He gave a contrived apology and while admitting his gesture had been “intolerable in the climate of 2021”, also complained that because of the #MeToo movement “you can no longer say or do anything”.

Many women (and men) expressed outrage on social media using the hashtag #Menesout. He was later pulled from presenting one of Canal Plus's top football programmes.

But some regretted that so much focus had been placed on one man when the problem is in fact structural.

“We’re not denouncing men in general, we’re denouncing a male-dominated system,” wrote Nathalie Iannetta, France’s first female football commentator.

“The harassment can be sneaky, it's part of a system and some men don‘t even realise they’re part of that system,” Henne agrees.

Stand your ground

On the day the documentary was broadcast a collective of women sports journalists (FJS) wrote an open letter in Le Monde denouncing sexism in the profession and calling for women to “stand their ground”. It was signed by 150 women journalists.

They highlighted women’s relative invisibility, citing data from the French media watchdog (CSA) which shows only 13 percent of sports commentary on TV and radio is provided by women.

And while there is more or less gender parity in journalism in general, only 10 percent of France’s 3,000 sports journalists are female.

“Sport is being made by men for men,” says Henne, one of FJS’s founding members, “and we have to change that.”

The male-dominated nature of the profession makes harassment both more common and more difficult to talk about.

The collective is therefore calling for women sports journalists to be “better represented, protected and supported”.

Are you a virgin?

For the system to change more women need to be encouraged to specialise in sports journalism in the first place. But “many girls get scared off when they hear about the atmosphere in newsrooms,” Henne explained.

Journalism student Sarra Djeghnoune got first hand experience of that when, aged 21, she applied to do an internship on a sports show.

“I wasn’t taken seriously and I was harassed by one of the sports journalists,” she told RFI. The 40-year old man bombarded her with lecherous messages late at night. “He asked me if I was a virgin, questions like that.

“As a result I lost all confidence in myself, I didn’t feel legitimate in wanting to become a sports journalist, I felt I was somehow reduced to my sex,” Djeghnoune explained. “I was also afraid of meeting other malicious people like him.”

She turned to writing about gastronomy, but working with FJS has renewed her belief in herself.

“FJS has given me hope and I think I can also give other girls hope.”

She plans to apply for another internship in sports this year “so I can prove to myself that men didn’t stop me from realising my dream. We won’t let them win the game.”

Signs of hope

Women won’t win this battle overnight, but they've set the ball rolling.

Following the disclosures in the documentary, RMC Sport radio, Canal Plus TV and Radio France have all opened internal investigations over alleged harassment of female journalists.

Meanwhile there are moves to force more gender equality into sports. Sports Minister Maracineanu is backing a proposed law that would introduce gender parity in national and regional executive bodies of sports federations in the lead up to the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

FJS plans to go into journalism schools and high schools to talk about the issue of harassment in the newsroom, and set up an observatory to monitor progress.

“Since the documentary and the open letter, some women are now more aware, some are daring to speak out, but the fact is women have been talking about this for years,” said Henne. “The difference is maybe we’re now ready to listen to them.”