It is the clarion cry of many politically active young women: ‘Down with the patriarchy!’ But for Pauline Harmange, a 25-year-old, bisexual French blogger, the call to arms has had more far-reaching consequences.
Her decision to wade into the gender wars by writing a book entitled I Hate Men has sparked a fierce debate not only about the differences between the sexes but also about freedom of speech.
The book is actually more a tub-thumping pamphlet, in the tradition of Paris’s bohemian and outspoken Left Bank, the haunt of great feminist philosophers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Colette and many others.
It is a passionate denunciation of men, of their violence and oppression and entitlement.
Pauline Harmange, a 25-year-old, bisexual French blogger, has waded into the gender wars by writing a book entitled I Hate Men which has sparked a fierce debate not only about the differences between the sexes but also about freedom of speech
It opens with a quote from poet Sylvia Plath: ‘The trouble was, I hated the idea of serving men in any way.’
Harmange deplores the role of men in society. ‘I witness every day the immense indifference of men towards women. I witness the sh*t about rape, harassment, feminicides, debates on social media, conversations from men I meet or interact with.’
Despite being distributed by a tiny publishing house run by volunteers called Monstrograph, her 96-page essay attracted the attention of a ‘mission manager’ at France’s Ministry of Women and Men’s Equality, named Ralph Zurmely. To him, it was clear. The title of the book, Moi Les Hommes, Je les Deteste, was an obvious incitement to hatred.
You can see his point: if any racial group had been substituted for the word ‘men’, there would have been uproar.
Mr Zurmrly said: ‘This book is obviously an ode to misandry [hatred of men]. I would like to remind you that incitement to hatred on the basis of sex is a criminal offence! Consequently, I ask you to immediately remove this book from your catalogue under penalty of criminal prosecution.’
He might have expected congratulations for rooting out ugly, divisive hate speech – the kind of thing online social media sites are being urged to stamp out.
She fears and loathes men as a species. She loves individual men. Harmange is happily married to Mathieu, 29, (pictured) who appears in a series of notably unthreatening poses on her Instagram feed. ‘I love him very much,’ she admits
Instead, something else happened. Mr Zurmely found that he had misjudged the public mood. The first edition of I Hate Men has sold out and the book is now being reprinted.
Is it that France had decided it hates men or that it likes freedom of speech more?
On the other side, Harmange is feeling the wrath of many men and women who detest her opinions.
She is accused of vicious prejudice against a group of people who are not commonly considered society’s victims – the entire male population.
Harmange, who describes herself on Instagram as the ‘harbinger of the feminist storm’, appears a little unsettled by the ferocity of the tempest she has whipped up and has retired to her home in Lille, in northern France.
Her publisher Colline Pierre, told The Mail on Sunday: ‘Pauline is taking a step back at the moment.
‘There are a lot of issues and offers surrounding her book. And sometimes violent reactions.’
A tempest is not a bad thing for sales, of course.
Before Harmange went into hiding, she gave an interview assuring men that their existence was not under threat, merely their entitlement. ‘Eradicating men is not my aim,’ she said, generously.
‘Ideally, the book would help bring men down to a normal position alongside the rest of us, and at the same time liberate women from the weight of that all powerful patriarchy.’
There is another tantalising aspect to this story of our times.
The first edition of I Hate Men has sold out and the book is now being reprinted. France’s Ministry of Women and Men’s Equality, Ralph Zurmely, said: ‘This book is obviously an ode to misandry [hatred of men]. I would like to remind you that incitement to hatred on the basis of sex is a criminal offence!’
The term ‘lived experience’ these days often prefaces political and social argument.
It has Marxist roots and emphasises the importance of ‘personal knowledge about the world gained through direct, first-hand involvement in everyday events rather than through representations constructed by other people’.
In other words, you have the right to talk about sexism or racism or classism or ageism, for example, only if you have experienced it.
Harmange says that working with rape victims has coloured her rhetoric.
The number of cases of domestic violence in France is high. But her own experience contradicts the All Men Are Rapists notion.
This is what she says in her book about men: ‘Even as they dump us, rape us and kill us… boys will be boys. Girls, on the other hand, will become women and learn to cope with being hit, because there is no escaping our narrow view in the crystal ball of patriarchy.’
She may hate men, but it is nothing personal, as she coyly adds: ‘Come on, I’m going to confess: I detest men. All, really? Yes, all of them. By default, I hold them very low in my estimation. It’s funny because I apparently have no legitimacy in detesting men.’
And then the knockout admission: ‘I chose to marry one anyway, and to this day, I have to admit that I love him very much.’
A scroll through her Instagram page shows something close to domestic bliss. Harmange is happily married to Mathieu, 29, who appears in a series of notably unthreatening poses on her Instagram feed. More often than not, he is asleep.
Indeed, Harmange’s Instagram generally is an idyll of contentment, and cats.
Her pictures are of calm sunsets, hot water bottles, knitting, coloured pens, home-baked bread and jam, cakes, yoga mats, and masses of cats. Her fierce rhetoric is matched only by her childlike pleasures.
She is reading Sylvia Plath, but also Harry Potter. She posts a notice that ‘injustice demands revolution’ but then settles down to making advent calendars and painting her fingernails. A tattoo on her arm reads Myself, a statement of defiance but also the solipsism of being 25 years old.
She has pictures of flowers and wedding dresses. She quotes the French writer Albert Camus, who was not known for his chivalry towards women.
Her husband, when awake, is pictured drinking coffee or curled up in corners – or just curled up with the cat. He does not display a tyrannical bone. Even his tattoos look like William Morris wallpaper.
There is a further plot twist: as well as being devoted to her husband, Harmange is bisexual. She says: ‘This choice is not devoid of all context. As a bisexual woman, who can say what my life would be like today if I hadn’t been confronted early on by the homophobia in society and those around me.’
For me, the key to understanding Harmange is not merely that she is young, but that she is very French. Her approach to the relationship between men and women is based on philosophy – which is almost more of a national sport across the Channel than rugby.
Harmange’s Instagram generally is an idyll of contentment, and cats. She is pulling down the temple of patriarchy to rebuild a new society. At the same time, though, she is cooking brownies for herself and beloved ‘enemy-husband’ Mathieu
In a sense, she is making the argument of Simone de Beauvoir. Namely, that we are defined by society rather than ourselves. Of course that includes men, but they don’t get much sympathy for that.
In truth, De Beauvoir took a slightly more subtle approach. Her concern was that women were defined in relation to men rather than on their own terms.
I believe women of a certain age will understand this. The compliment of being called ‘an honorary man’ allowed me to become a newspaper editor, although not a member of the Garrick Club.
Harmange’s cri de coeur echoes one of the tenets of the original Women’s Liberation movement: the fear that men are strong enough to kill you.
She fears and loathes men as a species. She loves individual men.
She does try to address the discrepancy: ‘Although I love my partner and do not consider parting for a second, I continue to think about and claim my fairness to men.’ In other words, she has mastered the art of reconciling two incompatible truths: the empirical (based on experience) and the emotional. How very French!
France is a country of magnificent contradictions: a place of liberty and revolution that has resorted to heavy-handed state powers; a country that ordered Muslims to remove their hijabs at work and now tells everyone to cover their faces with a mask. Swift to worship women, slow to understand the importance of the #MeToo movement.
For me, the key to understanding Harmange (pictured for an interview with The Guardian) is not merely that she is young, but that she is very French. Her approach to the relationship between men and women is based on philosophy – which is almost more of a national sport across the Channel than rugby
It is the home of the femme fatale and ‘le cinq a sept’, that golden happy hour when the British go to get two drinks for the price of one, but when French go to lie down with their loved ones – before going home to their spouses.
Harmange writes of men: ‘So much existential anxieties for which I cannot feel much empathy. All the time they spend whining about their plight as poor persecuted guys, they are cleverly shirking their duty: to be a little less pure products of patriarchy.’
She is pulling down the temple of patriarchy to rebuild a new society. At the same time, though, she is cooking brownies for herself and beloved ‘enemy-husband’ Mathieu.
It is what we call in plodding old Britain ‘having your cake and eating it’.
This curious, wholly French row should revive the spirits of a country cast down by Covid and castigating Britain over Brexit.
What better than a young woman blazing rhetoric and yet with a playful demeanour?
Her defence is that hating men is a philosophical construction rather than a hate crime.
Of course, I Hate Men should not be banned. It is not bigotry but a cry against the Establishment by a young woman who is part of a generation who are seeking cultural latitude instead of demanding power. They are much less aggressive than my generation, despite the furious words. They hate men but they love cats.
And Harmange has stumbled upon a greater cause.
Hers may be a generation that is quick to take offence but she has come to represent the fundamental right to give offence.
Freedom of speech is of profound constitutional significance in the land of Voltaire and it is also in peril in this country.
In this light, I am sure Pauline Harmange’s sweet-looking husband understands why it is important for me to say that I claim the right to hate men, women or cats, too.