PARIS — Sandrine Rousseau had just caused a new implosion of French politics.
In the very last moments of a TV show earlier this fall, she was asked about an internal investigation into the leader of her own political party, the Greens, and his romantic relationships. She did not dodge the question.
“I think there were behaviors that could break women’s mental health,” said Rousseau, 50, a self-proclaimed “ecofeminist”, a philosophy that combines ecological concerns with feminists.
His words had a quick impact: radio and television broadcasts sparked debates and Julien Bayou resigned as leader of the Green Party a week later, while denying having emotionally abused a former partner.
“Before, we only talked about rape, and afterwards we talked about sexual assault and harassment. Now, I think we have 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, during long nights when debates raged in the National Assembly, the lower and most powerful house of the nation. Parliament, to which she was elected this year.
“This is the next battlefield,” she added.
Few people had heard of Ms. Rousseau before last year. But she has recently become a household name in France for her penchant for engaging in the country’s fierce culture wars on multiple fronts.
She positions herself as one of the main torchbearers of the #MeToo movement in France.
And after a summer of frightening heat waves, wildfires and record droughts, she has also suddenly become the country’s loudest champion in the fight against climate change.
His newfound notoriety stems in part from his proven ability to develop one catchy idea after another that his ideological fans and opponents find irresistible.
Among his statements that have delighted, or exasperated, a large part 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 barbecue steak is no longer a symbol of virility”, a line that underlines his vision that meat consumption must be reduced to fight against climate change, and that men eat more meat than women.
The intentional provocations are part of a strategy, she says, to wrest themes of the country’s ongoing cultural battles from the hands of the far right, which has fueled debates about security, immigration and the perceived threat of Islam for French society.
“We were swept away by the right and the far right who asked the questions of the political debate,” said Ms. Rousseau, an economist by training and former university vice-president. “I see my role in changing the debate and bringing it to ecology and feminism.”
Ms Rousseau has become a favorite target of the country’s political right, who describe her as the humorless face of American-influenced cancel culture and “wokism”. A parody account that pokes fun at her has over 130,000 followers.
Feminist philosopher Elisabeth Badinter on Twitter described her as wanting to “burn it all down”, while far-right party leader Jordan Bardella said on Facebook that she “embodied radical madness”.
Her rising fame and decision to expose Mr Bayou has also made her unpopular in her own party, where many see her as unruly, divisive and distracting.
Ms. Rousseau has already been at the center of a political and media storm.
In 2016, when she was spokesperson for the Greens, 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 described by the women were not time-barred. Otherwise, the prosecutor said, the facts of the case “would likely constitute criminal acts.”
A judge later dismissed Mr. Baupin’s libel suit, ordering him instead to pay a fine of 500 euros ($523) to each of the defendants.
Some French feminists considered it a historic victory and a new step in the fight against sexual violence.
“It was a precursor to the #MeToo movement,” said Geneviève Fraisse, a French feminist philosopher. Before, the French women talked about their individual experiences, and now they exposed a trend, as a group. “It was the trigger that turned everything upside down,” added Ms. Fraisse.
But Ms. Rousseau did not feel successful at the time.
More than a year before the #MeToo movement swept the world, the case left her feeling beaten down by critics and let down by party colleagues, some of whom she said had turned a blind eye to the harassment sex for years, she said.
“When I looked at my political party, I saw it as a patriarchal organization, where men had power,” she says. “It was a new kind of violence.”
She left politics and returned to the north of France to concentrate on her job as vice-president of student life and teacher-researcher at the University of Lille.
She wrote a book about her experience with the Baupin case and started an organization called En Parler, or “Speaking Out”, to bring together victims of sexual violence.
Ms. Rousseau was not born rowdy. 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 dragged away from homework for dinner and “never gave us any trouble”, her father said, Yves Rousseau, who was also the city’s socialist mayor.
She studied economics at university. For her postgraduate degree, she worked with a community group fighting against a plan to cut down a local forest to make way for a hotel. His contribution, as an economist: to calculate the value of the forest, if it remained a forest.
The hotel project was called off, she said, adding, “It was my first activism.”
She married another university economist. After having three children, they turn their academic gaze to the source of their marital disputes: the sharing of household chores.
The article they wrote together revealed that men spend a third of women’s time on household chores; the research later became the basis of Ms. Rousseau’s argument that “not sharing household chores” should be made illegal.
The approach has become part of a model: its arguments are often seen as outlandish, but are based on academic research – with a feminist sensibility that the personal is political.
“There is little space between what she stands for and what she feels. Often they are intertwined, it’s her way of doing politics,” said long-time academic colleague Nicolas Postel. date.
She was in her kitchen preparing lunch one day in 2020, still working at university, when she heard on the radio that President Emmanuel Macron had appointed Gérald Darmanin as the country’s interior minister, the one of the most powerful positions in government.
At the time, Mr. Darmanin was under investigation for rape. In his new post, he would be in charge of the country’s police force, which feminist activists already viewed as dismissive of reports of rape and sexual assault.
“It was a slap in the face, a spit in the face of the women’s movement,” Rousseau said.
When Mr Macron later defended the nomination, saying he had spoken to his new interior minister “as a man to man”, Ms Rousseau decided to run against him in the 2022 presidential election as a as a Green Party candidate.
“It says, ‘The world of women doesn’t matter. That women are out of this game here, they can say whatever they want, but that really doesn’t matter,'” she said of remarks by Mr. Macron.
(A judge dismissed the rape case against Mr. Darmanin last summer; the plaintiff appealed that decision. Mr. Darmanin was never charged.)
In the race for the presidential nomination, Ms. Rousseau presented herself as the radical ecofeminist candidate and, to everyone’s surprise, only narrowly lost to Yannick Jadot. She then ran as a green candidate in the legislative elections last June, winning a seat in Paris. Yet there are signs that Ms. Rousseau’s ecofeminism and culture war tactics are not supported by the majority of her party members.
“She is buzzing. This is how Sandrine Rousseau acquired such a large media following 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 this change things? I doubt. Changing people’s values is long, chaotic and difficult.
However, there is no doubt that Ms. Rousseau continues to occupy a disproportionate place in the French imagination.
Last month, his claims that members of the France soccer team were ‘cowards’ who failed to take a symbolic stand for LGBTQ rights at the World Cup in Qatar made headlines. French press.
She believes she is seeding the national conversation towards concepts rooted in respect – for women and the environment.
“There are important questions being asked, which at any time will bring about change,” she said. “But it may be too soon.”
Tom Nouvian contributed research.