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Woman behind French #MeToo fined for defamation

September 25, 2019

Sandra Muller, the French journalist who launched the French version of the #MeToo movement, expressed her dismay over a ruling she called "a message to shut up." Her lawyer said they would appeal the decision.

French journalist Sandra Muller
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Weiss

A court in Paris ordered the woman who coined the French version of the #MeToo campaign to pay thousands of euros in damages for defaming the man she accused of sexual harassment.

Sandra Muller, a French journalist who introduced the viral hashtag #balancetonporc (expose your pig) to describe alleged sexual harassment, said the court's decision was "incomprehensible" and urged women to continue to make their voices heard.

The court ordered Muller to pay €15,000 ($16,500) in damages to French TV executive Eric Brion, who she had accused of making vulgar remarks at a party. She was also told pay €5,000 in legal compensation to Brion, delete the tweet that accused Brion, and publish the court ruling on her Twitter account and in two media outlets.

Muller's lawyer, Francis Szpiner, told reporters they would appeal the decision, slamming the ruling as "out of its time" and a "regression."

Read more: #MaintenantOnAgit — After #MeToo, France says 'Now we act'

'I don't regret it'

"The decision is heavy, it is punitive, it is disappointing and, for me, incomprehensible," Muller told media after the verdict. "But I had the courage to act, using means that were not great."

The ruling "means that victims who have already spoken out will be demotivated, that those who would like to speak out will have difficulty," she added. "Clearly the message that is being sent is 'shut up.'"

Muller said she has had trouble finding freelance work in the media industry since she rose to fame. "I am stamped with #balancetonporc and not as a journalist," she said. "It is difficult for me now. But I don't regret it. I was carried by a movement of liberating women."

"The decision takes nothing away from the fact that women are free to speak out, that you (women) must continue to speak out and you must continue to denounce reprehensible behavior of whatever nature," she said. 

A personal attack?

The #MeToo movement went viral in October 2017 as a social media hashtag, which aimed at exposing the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace. It followed sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, a Hollywood producer, by several renowned women.

Read more: Harvey Weinstein 'pays millions to settle sexual misconduct civil lawsuits'

Muller launched the French version of #MeToo the same month, calling on women to name and shame men who sexually harass. Hours later, she accused Eric Brion, a media consultant and former head of TV channel Equidia, of passing sexually lewd remarks at a 2012 function in Cannes.

She claimed Brion had said: "You have big breasts. You are my type of woman. I will make you orgasm all night." She ended the post with the hashtag #balancetonporc. 

Brion acknowledged he made inappropriate remarks for which he had apologized in a text message the day after, but he maintained that Muller's post wrongly showed him as a sex offender. He also said that Muller's campaign ruined his career. The court ruled the statement was not harassment.

Read more: French film star Catherine Deneuve apologizes to sex assault victims

Brion said the French court's Wednesday ruling "reaffirms he has never harassed Sandra Muller," according to his lawyer Nicolas Benoit, who spoke with the AFP news agency.

On Twitter, Brion called the ruling a "victory of true justice" after "two years of rare violence."

The judges ruled that in legal terms sexual harassment is characterized by repeated sexually offensive remarks or entailing the use of force.

"She passed the admissible limits of freedom of expression and her comments degenerated into a personal attack," it said.

Soon after #MeToo gained global prominence, French film star Catherine Deneuve and hundreds of women defended the men's right to "hit on" women, dubbing the #MeToo movement "puritanical."

Szpiner said the ruling could have implications for what, exactly is considered sexual harassment in France. The decision allows men to say or do offensive things, he told reporters, and "if they only do it one time, it will be excused by the court."

#MeToo realities for women in India

shs/sms  (AFP, AP)

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