Court orders French #MeToo founder to pay damages for defamation

Benjamin LEGENDRE and Stuart WILLIAMS
1 / 2
Sandra Muller, a French journalist who coined the viral hashtag #balancetonporc, has called the verdict "incomprehensible"

A Paris court on Wednesday ordered the woman behind France's answer to the #MeToo campaign to pay thousands of euros in damages for defaming the man she had accused of sexual harassment in a viral Twitter post.

Sandra Muller, a French journalist who coined the viral hashtag #balancetonporc ("expose your pig") to describe the alleged harassment, slammed the verdict as "incomprehensible" and urged women to continue to speak out.

In a closely watched civil suit, the court ruled against Muller and ordered her to pay 15,000 euros ($16,500) in damages to French TV executive Eric Brion who she had accused of making sexually lewd remarks at a party, according to the ruling seen by AFP.

She was also ordered to pay 5,000 euros in legal fees to Brion, to delete the tweet, and to publish the court ruling on her Twitter account and in two press outlets.

Her lawyer Francis Szpiner told reporters they would appeal the decision, denouncing the ruling as "out of its time" and a "regression".

Muller expressed dismay over the ruling and the size of the damages but insisted she did not regret coining the hashtag.

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

She lamented that the ruling "means that victims who have already spoken out will be demotivated, that those who would like to speak out will have difficulty."

"Clearly the message that is being sent is 'shut up'," she added.

- 'Fear must not win' -

Muller, who works for a French media industry publication, said she has had trouble finding freelance work since rising to prominence.

"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 behaviour of whatever nature."

"Fear must not win and I will continue to fight every day," she added.

Muller started the viral hashtag #balancetonporc on October 13, 2017, calling on French women to name and shame men in an echo of the #MeToo movement that began in response to allegations that toppled US movie producer Harvey Weinstein. "I am waiting for you," she wrote.

In another post sent hours later, the US-based French journalist accused Brion of humiliating her with sexual remarks at a function in the town of Cannes in 2012.

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.

- 'A degree of relief' -

Brion, a media consultant and former head of TV channel Equidia, acknowledges making inappropriate remarks for which he had apologised by text message the day after.

But he argued that Muller's post wrongly portrayed him as a sex offender and the publicity around the incident has ruined his career.

Brion learned of the decision with a "certain degree of relief and reaffirms he has never harassed Sandra Muller," his lawyer Nicolas Benoit told AFP.

"He is calmly awaiting the appeal process, a recourse he did not have the right to as he was condemned by the court of Twitter," he added.

The ruling said that by implying Brion had committed sexual harassment, Muller had used defamatory language as, in legal terms, sexual harassment is characterised as being repeated or entailing the use of force.

It said she had lacked caution in her tweets by using the word "pig" and implying a link to the context of the Weinstein case.

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

The post led to an outpouring of tales of harassment and assault, which were hailed as helping to confront a culture of permissiveness in France towards unwanted advances.

But there has also been controversy, with a group of prominent French women led by film star Catherine Deneuve complaining that the campaign had become "puritanical" and defending the right of men to "hit on" women.