PARIS — The rumors had been out there for years: A private Facebook group that included many up-and-coming French male journalists was behind waves of online insult, mockery and harassment aimed at women in the business.
Now, with confirmation that a group that called itself the Ligue du LOL existed, it is a moment of reckoning about sexism in the French news media, an insular and still male-dominated industry in a country where the #MeToo movement has met with some resistance.
Some of the men behind the group, whose name means the League of LOL, have issued apologies, and several have been suspended from their jobs.
In one case, a member of the group made a pornographic photo montage of a feminist writer and circulated it on Twitter. In another, a member of the group made a prank phone call to a woman, pretending to be a media executive with a job offer, and then put the conversation online.
“For six years, we asked ourselves if we should speak out, and we didn’t dare at first because we knew that what we wanted to say wouldn’t be understood,” said Léa Lejeune, a French journalist at the business magazine Challenges.
Writing about her experience on Slate.fr, Ms. Lejeune said that from 2011 to 2013, members of the group left insulting comments on her feminist blog and falsely suggested she had slept with her boss.
But today, Ms. Lejeune said, “there has been a huge change.”
“It’s similar to #MeToo, in the sense that victims speaking out are finally being heard,” she said.
While the movement has been met with skepticism in France, there have been recent signs of shifting attitudes. Figures published this month, for instance, showed that the French police had received drastically more reports of sexual crimes last year because victims have grown more willing to come forward — a change officials attributed in part to #MeToo.
In the French media, fewer than a quarter of 470 top executives in the country last year were women, statistics published recently show. But even in that male bastion, change has been coming. From journalism schools to newsrooms, the talk now is of sexism — and how to combat it.
The newspaper Libération reported on Monday that in December, HuffPost France fired three journalists who were part of an all-male private discussion channel called “RBF” — as in “Radio Beer Soccer” — where sexist, racist and homophobic comments were commonplace.
And the weekly magazine L’Express reported on Monday that two Vice France employees were fired in 2017 after a similar message group was uncovered.
The Ligue du LOL Facebook group had about 30 members, many of whom are now established journalists, advertising executives, podcasters or bloggers.
Rumors about it had circulated in the French media for years. But its existence was made public only last week, when Libération’s fact-checking department, responding to a question from a reader, published a piece documenting its activities.
Victims of the harassment, many of whom were young, aspiring journalists, say that members of the group repeatedly mocked them, especially on Twitter, denigrating their work or making lewd jokes and crude photo montages at their expense.
One target, a feminist writer who goes by the name Daria Marx, wrote on her blog on Sunday that harassment against her peaked when she created an online fund-raiser for her birthday to buy a scooter, which she shared on Twitter.
“I received a flood of hatred like never before,” she wrote, including death threats and harassment by phone. “I would wake up at night to see if the harassment had stopped, I went to bed with insults, and I woke up with 40 new foul mentions.”
On Monday, several former members of the Ligue du LOL were suspended by their employers after the outpouring of accusations.
Among them were Alexandre Hervaud, a senior web editor at Libération, and David Doucet, the editor in chief of the cultural magazine Les Inrocks. Stephen des Aulnois, who admitted making a pornographic photo montage of Ms. Marx, stepped down as editor in chief of the erotic web review Le Tag Parfait.
Many of the group’s former members who now work at publications or on podcasts perceived as progressive or feminist posted apologies on Twitter.
Vincent Glad, a journalist who frequently worked with Libération, acknowledged that he had created the group in 2009. He said that the original intent had been to share private jokes and have fun, not harass women, but that the group became “a monster that completely escaped from me.”
“We would talk of trolling, it was harassment,” Mr. Glad said in an apology on Monday. At the time, he said, he failed to see the “profoundly male chauvinistic” side of their humor.
“I was not bold enough to say in a clear way that sometimes, really, we went too far,” he said. Libération has stopped working with him for now.
Mr. Glad said his opinions on feminism had radically changed.
Aude Lorriaux, a freelance journalist and spokeswoman for Prenons la Une, a group that advocates for gender equality in the media, said that what members of the league considered harmless jokes had a very real impact on careers.
Many of the women lost self-confidence, she said, and some left social networks — which have become a key part of a journalist’s ability to showcase work and keep a public profile.
“What happened is that these men built their careers at the expense of women,” Ms. Lorriaux said. “They built their careers on this men’s club, where you reinforce each other at the expense of others.”
There were also some men who were targeted by the group. One of them, the blogger and writer Matthias Jambon-Puillet, wrote on Medium that a pornographic photo montage of him was made using a personal picture.
But most of those targeted appear to have been women or members of minorities.
In interviews and on social media over the past few days, those people described a vicious cycle in which mockery by members of the group would quickly be emulated by dozens of other accounts.
Mélanie Wanga, a French journalist and podcaster who was targeted, said the men were protected by a “culture of impunity” because they were young, talented professionals who had mastered the “ins and outs” of social media. It was also long before issues like cyberbullying were publicly acknowledged.
Some members of the group, she said, deflected accusations of harassment by noting that they had always published on social media under their own names, not pseudonyms.
“But that’s the whole point,” she said. “They didn’t even have to create a fake account. They could to it all openly.”
Now, she said, public opinion has shifted, the appetite for a discussion about feminism and racism has increased, and the tolerance for sexism is much lower.
But many women say harassment will be fully curbed only when more women rise to positions of leadership in the media.
“Today, I would like to no longer see these kinds of ‘boys clubs’ take shape,” Ms. Wanga said.
Orignially published in NYT.