She Came Out of Nowhere, and Now No One in France Can Ignore Her

PARIS — Sandrine Rousseau had just caused an implosion in French politics, again.

In the very last moments of a television program earlier this fall, she was asked about an internal investigation into the leader of her own political party, the Greens, and his romantic relations. She did not dodge the question.

“I think there was behavior that was likely to shatter women’s mental health,” said Ms. Rousseau, 50, a self-described “ecofeminist,” a philosophy that combines ecological concerns with feminist ones.

Her words had a swift impact: Radio and television shows lit up in debate, and Julien Bayou stepped down as the Green Party’s leader a week later, while denying he had emotionally abused a former partner.

“Before, we spoke only about rape, and after we talked about sexual aggression and harassment. Now, I think we need to talk about psychological violence because many women are victims of psychological violence. It’s a form of domination,” Ms. Rousseau said a few weeks later, in her small parliamentary office equipped with a bed, for long nights when debates rage on in the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of Parliament, to which she was elected this year.

“It’s the next battleground,” she added.

Few had ever heard of Ms. Rousseau before last year. But she has recently become a brand-name in France for her penchant for jumping into the country’s fierce culture wars on multiple fronts.

Ms. Rousseau at the National Assembly in Paris in October. “I see my role to change the debate and bring it to ecology and feminism,” she says of her attention-grabbing stunts.Credit…Christophe Archambault/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

She has positioned herself as one of the main torchbearers of the #MeToo movement in France.

And after a summer of frightening heat waves, forest fires and record droughts, she has also suddenly become the country’s loudest champion of fighting climate change.

Her newfound prominence stems in part from her proven ability to spin off one attention-grabbing idea after another, which her ideological fans and opponents alike find irresistible.

Among her statements that have delighted, or infuriated, much of France: “The right to be lazy.” That she lived with a “deconstructed man.” And “we have to change our mentality so that eating a barbecued entrecôte is no longer a symbol of virility,” a line that underscored her view that meat consumption must be reduced to help fight climate change, and that men eat more meat than women.

The intentional provocations are part of a strategy, she says, to wrest the themes of the country’s ongoing cultural battles from the controlling thumbs of the far-right, which has fueled debates on security, immigration and the perceived threat of Islam to French society.

“We’ve been swept along by the right and extreme right who have set the questions of political debate,” said Ms. Rousseau, a trained economist and a former university vice president. “I see my role to change the debate and bring it to ecology and feminism.”

Firefighters in an area affected by wildfires near Arcachon, France, in July. After a summer of heat waves, forest fires and record droughts, Ms. Rousseau has emerged as France’s loudest champion of fighting climate change.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Ms. Rousseau has become a favorite target of the country’s political right, who paint her as the humorless face of self-righteous, American-influenced cancel-culture and “le wokisme.” A parody account poking fun of her has more than 130,000 followers.

The feminist philosopher Élisabeth Badinter on Twitter described her as wanting to “burn everything,” while the leader of the far-right party, Jordan Bardella, said on Facebook that she “embodies a radical madness.”

Her rising fame and decision to denounce Mr. Bayou have made her unpopular in her own party as well, where many consider her unruly, divisive and a distraction.

Ms. Rousseau has been at the center of a political and media storm before.

In 2016, when she was the Greens’ spokeswoman, Ms. Rousseau and three other female politicians publicly accused her powerful party colleague, Denis Baupin, of sexually harassing them. A Paris prosecutor closed the case, because the incidents the women described fell outside the statute of limitations. Otherwise, the prosecutor said, the facts of the case “would likely constitute criminal actions.”

A judge later threw out Mr. Baupin’s defamation lawsuit, instead sentencing him to pay a 500 euro fine ($523) to each of the defendants.

Some French feminists considered it a landmark win, and a new stage of the fight against sexual violence.

“It was a precursor of the #MeToo movement,” said Geneviève Fraisse, a French feminist philosopher. Before, French women had talked about their individual experiences, and now they were exposing a trend, as a group. “That was the trigger than turned everything upside down,” Ms. Fraisse added.

Julien Bayou, who stepped down as the leader of the Green party after Ms. Rousseau said his behavior was “likely to shatter women’s mental health.”Credit…Olivier Chassignole/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But Ms. Rousseau didn’t feel successful at the time.

More than a year before the #MeToo movement swept the globe, the case left her feeling battered by criticism and abandoned by her party colleagues, some of whom she believed had turned a blind eye to the sexual harassment for years, she said.

“When I looked at my political party, I saw it as a patriarchal organization, where men had the power,” she says. “It was a new kind of violence.”

She left politics and returned to northern France to focus on herjob as vice president of student life and a professor-researcher at Lille University.

She wrote a book about her experience with the Baupin case and launched an organization called En Parler, or “Speaking Out,” to bring together victims of sexual violence.

Ms. Rousseau was not born a rabble-rouser. The daughter of two tax inspectors from a small town in the southwest of the country, she was a bookish child who had to be ripped from homework for dinner and “never caused us any problems,” said her father, Yves Rousseau, who was also the town’s Socialist mayor.

She studied economics in college. For her postgraduate degree, she worked with a community group fighting a plan to cut down a local forest to make way for a hotel. Her contribution, as an economist: calculating the worth of the forest, if it remained a forest.

The hotel project was canceled, she said, adding: “It was my first activist action.”

Ms. Rousseau in her office at the National Assembly in Paris. She has become a brand-name in France for her penchant for jumping into the country’s fierce culture wars on multiple fronts.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

She married another economist at the university. After having three children, they turned their academic eyes to the source of their marital fighting: the division of cleaning duties.

The paper they wrote together revealed that men spend one-third the time of women on household chores; the research later became the foundation for Ms. Rousseau’s argument that “not sharing household chores” should be made illegal.

The approach became part of a pattern: Her arguments are often received as outlandish, but are based on academic research — along with a feminist sensibility that the personal is political.

“There is little space between what she defends and what she feels. Often they are intimately linked — that’s her way of doing politics,” said Nicolas Postel, a longtime academic colleague.

She was in her kitchen making lunch one day in 2020, still working at the university, when she heard on the radio that President Emmanuel Macron had named Gérald Darmanin the country’s interior minister, one of the most powerful positions in the government.

A protest after President Emmanuel Macron nominated Gérald Darmanin as the new interior minister, in Paris, in 2020. Ms. Rousseau called the appointment “a spit in the face of the women’s movement.”Credit…Yoan Valat/EPA, via Shutterstock

At the time, Mr. Darmanin was under investigation for rape. In his new job, he would be in charge of the country’s police forces, which feminist activists already considered dismissive of rape and sexual assault reports.

“It was a slap, a spit in the face of the women’s movement,” Ms. Rousseau said.

When Mr. Macron later defended the appointment, saying he had spoken to his new interior minister “man to man,” Ms. Rousseau decided to run against him in the 2022 presidential election as the Green party candidate.

“That said, ‘The world of women doesn’t count. That women are outside of this game here, they can say what they want, but it’s of little importance, really,’” she said of Mr. Macron’s comments.

(A judge dismissed the rape case against Mr. Darmanin last summer; the plaintiff has appealed that decision. Mr. Darmanin has never been charged.)

In the race for the presidential nomination, Ms. Rousseau presented herself as the radical, ecofeminist candidate and, to the surprise of many, lost only narrowly to Yannick Jadot. She later ran as a Green candidate in last June’s parliamentary elections, winning a seat in Paris. Yet there are signs that Ms. Rousseau’s ecofeminism and culture-war tactics are not supported by the bulk of her party’s members.

“I looked around at the other leaders of the #MeToo movement in France, and there wasn’t really anyone who could take on that role, so I decided, ‘I have to,’” said Ms. Rousseau.Credit…Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

“She makes a buzz. That’s how Sandrine Rousseau has acquired such a big media audience without any official post in the party,” said Daniel Boy, a retired research director at Sciences Po, who specializes in the politics of the environmental movement. “Will that change things? I doubt it. Changing people’s values is long, chaotic and difficult.”

Still, there’s no doubt that Ms. Rousseau continues to occupy an outsized position in the French imagination.

Last month, her claims that members of the French soccer team were “cowards” who had not taken a symbolic stand for L.G.B.T.Q. rights at the World Cup in Qatar made news across the French press.

She believes she is seeding the national conversation toward concepts anchored in respect — of women, and the environment.

“There are important questions being asked, that at any given moment, will bring changes,” she said. “But it might be too early.”

Tom Nouvian contributed research.

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