‘I just don’t want to be a damsel in distress. I’ll scream on the balcony, but you’ve got to let me do a little action here’. – Kirsten Dunst, actor.
In 2004, radical documentary maker Michael Moore made a controversial appearance at Madison Square Garden where the Republican National Convention was gearing up to re-elect George W. Bush as President. From the press row balcony as a ‘guest columnist’ for USA Today, Moore gloried in his role as pantomime villain as the West Virginia and Missouri delegates below booed and abused him. He then threatened to disrupt the entire convention by dragging around roughly 70 Secret Service personnel and tagging journalists like a magnet attracting filings. One delegate from Missouri who got close called Moore ‘a disgrace’, seconds after asking for his autograph.
It would be fair to say that no Front National (FN) supporters would be asking Femen to sign fan books (or body parts). Turning Dunst’s quip on its head, they were no damsels in distress, but screaming from their balcony they were certainly in the action. Minutes after blackballed former-FN leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen made an unauthorised (and, by the reaction of the crowd, adulatory) appearance at the podium of a FN May day rally, the Femen protestors chanted anti-FN slogans from the balcony of a building overlooking the stage as Jean-Marie’s daughter and successor, Marine Le Pen, began her speech. The FN members in attendance reacted in much the same way as West Virginia and Missouri delegates did to Michael Moore back in 2004.
Visibly unsettled, Le Pen junior, ensconced on high, shot back at her detractors with: ‘Lot of surprises on this May 1st . It’s quite a paradox when you call yourself a feminist and try to disturb a tribute to Joan of Arc’. The fifteenth-century French military heroine has been adopted as a nationalist symbol by the FN. Seen as someone who repelled overseas invaders, the majority of the French however reject this adoption, just as many Charlie Hebdo surviving scribes denounced FN marches and their banners reading ‘Je suis Charlie’. Earlier in the day, Femen protestors made a direct intervention to try and prevent FN supporters from laying a wreath at a statue of the sainted Joan, the fracas lasting for ten minutes until four FN security men removed the activists who were later arrested. From the balcony though, their ‘sisters’ were untouchable.
Femen have targeted other figures for their protests. In recent months, topless activists harassed the car of former Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and one-time Socialist presidential candidate frontrunner, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as he was ferried to and from his trial on charges relating to prostitution. They daubed their bodies with the provocative ‘Your turn to be f****d’ message in reference to his reputation as a notorious lothario. But like their demonstrations against the FN, there is an undercurrent unnoticed by commentators.
Femen are now primarily based in Paris but they originated in Ukraine in 2008. The Femen office in Kiev closed and the leadership relocated to France in August 2013, ‘fearing for their lives and freedom’, but their identification with their native homeland remains strong, especially against overbearing Russian influence. On the 8th of April 2013, they carried out a trademark ‘topless ambush’ of Vladimir Putin at the Hanover trade fair, spokeswoman Alexandra Shevchenko describing it as ‘non-violent women protesting against the most dangerous dictator in the world, it got great coverage and will hopefully inspire people in Russia as well as helping us to recruit new members’. Putin brushed it off saying he ‘liked’ the topless nature of the protest.
Nevertheless, Femen’s contempt for all the works of the Kremlin is reinforced by Putin’s close association with the Russian Orthodox Church (which supports the state in a symbiosis unmatched since the tsars), another bastion of patriarchy in their opinion. They have previously urged the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to break with its Russian counterpart in a move of independence. So when, in July 2013, Strauss-Kahn accepted a position as a board member of the Russian Regional Development Bank – a banking subsidiary of the Russian state oil company, Rosneft – and shortly after also accepted a similar position at the Kremlin-backed Russian Direct Investment Fund, he became a legitimate target of Femen. Similarly, the FN have taken millions of euros in loans from Moscow, pledging to leave the European Union and serve Putin’s purpose of seeing a disunited continent, as Russia backs other nationalistic parties across Europe.
Femen, it seems, does not only want to ‘liberate’ women but also attack the ‘stooges’ of Moscow who seek to portray Russian behaviour, especially in Ukraine, as acceptable. The protests may be small-scale and limited but crucially they generate media coverage that allows their opponents to be seen in a negative light by their reaction. And that is how Femen, in their own way, even if shouting from a balcony, help their brothers and sisters back in Ukraine and support the right of individuals to assert themselves through solidarity.
1. Femen protests against FN, Strauss-Kahn and Putin in Hanover – The Guardian
2. Michael Moore at the Republican Convention – The Washington Post