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With Topless Protests, 'Sextremists' March In Paris

Sometimes, less is more.

That's certainly the thinking of the Ukrainian feminist movement Femen, best known for its bare-breasted protests in its home country. Now it has brought its self-described "sextremism" to Paris, opening its first international training camp and wasting no time attracting new recruits, causes and attention.

On a recent sunny morning, seven young women stride purposefully toward the stone facade of France's Justice Ministry. Suddenly they throw their coats to the ground. Slogans are painted across their bare bosoms; garlands decorate their hair.

"Justice screws us," they yell in French as they unfurl a black banner that reads "Rape Club. This is Femen."

On this day, the group is protesting the verdict of a recent gang rape trial where a few of the accused got suspended sentences and the rest were acquitted.

"Now Paris is not the capital of love but the capital of rapists," says Inna Shevchenko, the Ukrainian leader of Femen. "Today we came here to demand to put in jail rapists, and we say that if [the Justice Ministry] will not change their decision against group rapists of two 16-year-old girls, we're going to catch them and castrate them."

The petite blonde has a steel glint in her eye. Shevchenko calls France the center of feminism, which is why the group is opening its international headquarters in Paris.

But she says whether it's Paris or Kiev, women share a common cause, fighting against patriarchy and all of its manifestations: religion, the sex industry, dictatorship.

Topless activists from Femen protest a court ruling that acquitted 10 of 14 men accused of repeatedly gang-raping two teenagers in a Paris suburb.
Martin Bureau / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Topless activists from Femen protest a court ruling that acquitted 10 of 14 men accused of repeatedly gang-raping two teenagers in a Paris suburb.

Guaranteed To Attract Attention

The group is already well-known in Eastern Europe for protesting against Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarussian leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Shevchenko fled her native Ukraine last August after sawing through an Orthodox Christian cross with a chainsaw to support the jailed Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot.

Shevchenko has demonstrated for women's causes for years. But she says it was only when they began doing it topless that people paid attention.

"In a protest like that I see a great potential of women's nudity [being used] as a weapon. And I understand every time, more and more, that it works. That it is a peaceful way," Shevchenko says. "But they are even ready to use violence against our peaceful, naked bodies."

The protesters chant in English and French and move constantly — they lie on the sidewalk or circle the guards. Several scale the iron grids on the Finance Ministry's enormous windows.

A crowd of onlookers gathers. Senegalese construction worker Bokom Sitigam wanders over from a worksite next door.

Sitigam says he's astounded to see topless women engaged in protest, adding that they must be brave. He says he is going to take photos and post them on Facebook. Why not, he asks, since the journalists are doing the same.

Sister Marie Veronique, a Dominican nun, happens by. She stops to pose for photos with some of the Femen protesters, their naked torsos a startling contrast to her black and white nun's habit. But the nun says she's not shocked.

"If this demonstration is against gang rape, I think they're absolutely right to do this," she says. "It is a good way to shock people and call attention to this."

Setting Up In France

Femen France is currently operating out of donated workspace in a blue-collar Paris neighborhood. The training is physical as well as mental. Members must be ready to run, climb and confront the police. Julia, a 28-year-old fashion photographer, is one of the new French recruits.

"I followed them in the Ukraine and when they came here it was natural I joined," she says.

When asked whether she was nervous, she says no.

"Never, never. I'm much [more] nervous taking the subway home late than doing this," she says.

The police arrive late, after Femen members have put back on their coats and are talking to reporters. But one of the group's main goals is to provoke, so they quickly shed their jackets and dash back for a second round.

This time it's a heated battle as the police try to round up the women, not knowing quite how and where to grab them. The gendarmes end up encircling the protesters with plexiglass shields. Eventually, Femen members agree to be escorted to the metro, with their clothes on.

The group can claim a measure of success. Their demonstration was all over the nightly news, and the Paris prosecutor has appealed the rape verdict and called for a new trial.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
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