The Firebrand behind a Parisian feminist movement – OZY
Because she is a force to be reckoned with in Paris.
- Marguerite Stern has taken Paris by storm with her street art creation movement to protest against the harassment of women.
- But Stern’s views on trans women were rebuffed, and in response she formed a splinter group.
Place yourself in almost every street in Paris and you will probably see a message from Les Colleuses. “Nine out of 10 rape victims know their attacker. “” In France, a femicide every two days. “Our anger on your walls.”
These messages come from the most recent French feminist artistic movement, in which anyone can participate. All you need is glue and something to say. Women across Paris, Europe and the rest of the world have connected with the method of expression pioneered by the movement’s founder, 29-year-old radical feminist Marguerite Stern. But that doesn’t mean they like everything she has to say.
Born near Auvergne, Stern did not learn feminism while growing up. When she moved to Paris at the age of 18, she was surprised by the city’s culture of street harassment – a 2015 survey found 100% of French women had been harassed on public transport .
When we put the collages in the streets, it’s like shouting. We just put our cries on the walls.
Around the same time, Ukrainian feminist activist Inna Shevchenko, exiled from Kiev for her public support for arrested members of the punk group Pussy Riot, moved to France. Shevchenko, a leader of Femen, a leading feminist group, began leading protests in France, which is how Stern learned the power of performance art for a cause. Five days after meeting Femen activists, she was on the street with them, baring her breasts covered in slogans.
In 2015, Stern had to take a break. After the shooting of the satirical magazine Charlie hebdo, Femen activists, ideologically allied to Weekly seeing Islam and the veil as incompatible with feminist values, began to receive death threats. Stern was also jailed for a month in Tunisia for demonstrating topless. She moved to a refugee camp – the “jungle” of Calais in France – to teach French to newcomers.
After that, Stern moved to Marseille, where she started pasting messages on the walls. She wanted to do something on the streets, where those who might never attend a feminist meeting would see the slogans. Inspired by the black and white scribbles of artist Pierre Soulages and the slogans of suffragettes, Stern created a style designed to be easily reproducible by anyone; all it took was hardware. The art is striking, with large-scale collages and long messages that often take up most of a wall. “As women we are always told that we are not powerful enough to do great things,” Stern says. “The street is a space where, as a woman, you are not allowed to make noise. When we put the collages in the streets, it’s like shouting. We just put our cries on the walls.
After six months of bonding Stern on her own, the movement has spread. Thousands of women are now working on the project in Paris, and Stern has heard from groups in Portugal, India, China, Turkey and Canada who use the same techniques. In Paris, other groups are taking the bandwagon, with messages about veganism or Uyghur repression. Stern doesn’t mind: The Colleuses don’t have a rigid hierarchy, she says, and she doesn’t feel the need to control what other people put on the walls.
This attitude may not be mutual, however. Stern is what British feminists call TERF, or radical trans-exclusionist feminist. A recent Instagram post of hers depicted a wall collage that read “I’m with JK Rowling,” the British author whose transphobic comments sparked an uproar. Stern’s explanation has to do with the idea that entrenched gender roles are a prison: she sees trans women who wear skirts or high heels as reproducing damaging stereotypes that are a tool of patriarchy. While she said trans people should have “the same rights” as everyone else, Stern also advocated their exclusion from feminist spaces intended for women.
Other Colleuses members, like Camille Lextray, who took on a leadership role in the movement as Stern stepped down, expressed support for trans women, refusing to reduce something as complex as gender to simple biology. “What makes us women is how we define ourselves. We recognize ourselves in what society identifies as a woman, ”said Lextray Marianne reviewed in August. And Stern’s attitude reflects a worrying national trend: A report by SOS Homophobia found that violence against trans and non-binary people in France increased by 130% from 2018 to 2019.
“Many feminists in France believe that trans people have no place in the spaces and struggles of women,” explains Emmanuel Beaubatie, researcher at the French Institute for Demographic Studies. “[But] Trans activism is based primarily on the legacy of feminist struggles, namely the demand for the right to have one’s own body. Many feminists have understood this well, but some resistance persists. Beautbatie points out that this is not the first time that a feminist movement has excluded marginalized people. “On many occasions, black women excluded from feminist mobilizations have already asked the question: ‘I am not a woman?’ This question is now being asked by trans women.
For Stern, opposition from other feminist collagists is “patriarchal,” and she continues to stick messages on the walls of public spaces several times a week. Her new group, L’Amazone, explicitly excludes transgender women and also maintains a strict stance against sex work, controversial in French feminism. She published a practical manual for activists, Street heroines, which she hopes will provide tools to other women who advocate radical feminism.
Stern’s stance on trans activism may seem backward to other feminists, and her next project may be just as out of date. She is looking for indoor spaces where cis women can come together, even as rules against large groups multiply in a country beset by the second wave of COVID-19. “I prefer to find a big space where we can get away socially,” Stern says. “Because I think in order to act together, we really need to meet. You cannot create movement by WhatsApp groups or Zoom meetings; you need to see yourself in real life.