The Firebrand Behind a Parisian Feminist Movement
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s a force to be reckoned with in Paris.
By Fiona Zublin
- Marguerite Stern has taken Paris by storm with her movement to create street art protesting the harassment of women.
- But Stern’s views on trans women have drawn pushback, and in response, she’s formed a splinter group.
Stand on almost any street in Paris and you’re likely to 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 are from France’s newest feminist art movement, one that anyone can participate in. All you need is glue and something to say. Women across Paris, Europe and the rest of the world have connected to 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 didn’t learn about feminism growing up. When she moved to Paris at age 18, she was startled by the city’s culture of street harassment — a 2015 survey found that 100 percent of French women had been harassed on public transit.
When we put the collages in the streets, it’s like we’re screaming. We just put our screams on the walls.
Around the same time, Ukrainian feminist activist Inna Shevchenko, exiled from Kiev for her public support of the arrested members of punk band Pussy Riot, took up residence in France. Shevchenko, a leader of Femen, a prominent feminist group, began leading protests in France, which was how Stern learned the power of performance art for a cause. Five days after meeting some Femen activists, she was in the street with them, baring her slogan-covered breasts.
In 2015, Stern had to take a break. After the shootings at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Femen activists, ideologically allied with Hebdo in seeing Islam and the veil as incompatible with feminist values, began getting death threats. Stern had also been jailed for a month in Tunisia for protesting bare-breasted there. She moved to a refugee camp — France’s Calais “Jungle” — to teach French to newcomers.
After that, Stern moved to Marseille, which is where she started gluing messages to walls. She wanted to do something in 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 by the slogans of suffragettes, Stern created a style designed to be easily replicable by anyone; all it took was materials. The art is striking, with large-scale collages and long messages that often take up most of a wall. “We as women are always told that we are not powerful enough to make big things,” Stern says. “The streets are a space where as a woman you are not allowed to be loud. When we put the collages in the streets, it’s like we’re screaming. We just put our screams on the walls.”
After six months of Stern’s gluing by herself, the movement 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 are using the same techniques. In Paris, other groups are jumping on the bandwagon, with messages about veganism or Uighur repression. Stern doesn’t mind: Les Colleuses doesn’t have a rigid hierarchy, she says, and she doesn’t feel the need to control what other people put on walls.
That attitude may not be reciprocated, though. Stern is what feminists in the U.K. have come to refer to as a TERF, or trans-exclusionary radical feminist. A recent Instagram post of hers depicted a wall collage reading “I stand with J.K. Rowling,” the British author whose transphobic comments have caused 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 has said that trans people should have “the same rights” as others, Stern has also advocated for excluding them from feminist spaces meant to be for women.
Other members of Les Colleuses, like Camille Lextray, who has taken a leadership role in the movement as Stern has retreated, have been vocal in their support of trans women, refusing to break something as complex as gender down to mere biology. “What makes us women is how we define ourselves. We recognize ourselves in what society identifies as a woman,” Lextray told Marianne magazine in August. And Stern’s attitude is reflective of a disturbing national trend: A report from SOS Homophobie found that violence against trans and nonbinary people in France increased 130 percent from 2018 to 2019.
“Many feminists in France believe that trans people have no place in women’s spaces and women’s struggles,” says Emmanuel Beaubatie, a researcher at the French Institute for Demographic Studies. “[But] trans activism is based mainly 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 isn’t the first time a feminist movement has excluded marginalized people. “On many occasions, Black women excluded from feminist mobilizations have already asked the question: ‘Ain’t I a woman?’ This question is now asked by trans women.”
To Stern, the opposition from other feminist collagists is “patriarchal,” and she continues to glue messages to walls in public spaces several times a week. Her new group, L’Amazone, explicitly excludes transgender women and also maintains a strict anti-sex-work position, controversial in French feminism. She has published a how-to handbook for activists, Heroines of the Streets, that she hopes will offer tools to other women advocating for radical feminism.
Stern’s position on trans activism may seem retrograde to other feminists, and her next project may be just as out of step with the times. She’s looking for indoor spaces where cis women can gather, even as rules against large groups mount in a country beset by the second wave of COVID-19. “I prefer to find a big space where we can socially distance,” Stern says. “Because I think to act together we really need to meet. You can’t build a movement by WhatsApp groups or Zoom meetings; you need to see each other in real life.”