Dancers in Thongs at Business Gala Still OK in Post-MeToo France

(Bloomberg) -- In France, the birthplace of the Moulin Rouge, a major agriculture conference threw a business party featuring an after-dinner cabaret show of women wearing little else besides rhinestone-studded thongs and bras.

Traders attending the European Commodities Exchange last week in Rouen, France, posted photos and video of the party on Twitter, some of which showed semi-naked women dancing on a stage to club-thumping music. The gala was part of the official program of the conference, which was sponsored by major companies in the French agriculture and trading industry, including Euronext, Senalia and Soufflet Group.

“It was like the Moulin Rouge, albeit just scantily clad, not topless,” said Swithun Still, director of Solaris Commodities, a Swiss agriculture trading house.

When contacted by phone about the event, Stephane Menard, the president of the Bourse de Commerce de Rouen, which organized the conference, declined to comment, but added that his wife, whom he called a feminist, found the event “classy and appropriate.”

After-Dinner Show

The decision to hold a male-dominated corporate event with half-naked women highlights how there are differing views on what’s considered acceptable in a business setting. That’s especially true in France, where attitudes toward sex and nudity are freer and it’s common to see topless women in a storefront magazine.

Online promotional videos of the after-dinner show, advertised as Splendide by SO Rouen, showed an elaborate spectacle of costumed dancers and acrobats. Some dancers performed in nipple pasties and sheer tights. Others turned circus feats in the air using aerial hoops and silks.

The gala in Rouen last week was organized as part of the European Commodities Exchange, a business expo for the grain industry. The conference, which is held in a different city each year, was organized by the Bourse de Commerce de Rouen. Representatives for Euronext and Soufflet said they played no role in planning the event. Senalia, which runs grain silos, didn’t return requests for comment.

Fine Line

“It’s a fine line to walk,” said Veronique Saubot, the president of Force Femmes, a non-profit that promotes women in the corporate world. “It’s about the artistic quality of the show. Is it about art or about helping oneself to an eyeful?”

“Without being a killjoy, I wonder: Is it really necessary? Ideally, we’d like to elevate people in the professional world,” Saubot said, adding that the Moulin Rouge is a French tradition and that she’s brought foreign business partners to Le Lido, a 72-year-old cabaret in Paris.

Cabaret in France dates back to the 1800s and the show at the Moulin Rouge still attracts thousands of tourists every year. There’s even a popular prime-time television show called "The Greatest Cabaret in the World,” which features variety show acts like magic tricks, tap dancing and juggling, and skits that are more adult in tone, with barely-clothed men and women.

Professional Dancers

The Moulin Rouge said it continues to hold corporate parties with dancers and professional artists for all ages, including children. The Crazy Horse, another venue known for nude female dancers, also offers corporate events. On its website, the venue advertises that “your company evening party at Crazy Horse Paris is specially designed to seduce you.”

In contrast, U.K. companies are largely giving up raunchy events after some cases sparked public outrage. The President’s Club, a London charity, disbanded in January after a Financial Times report on its men-only fundraising gala, where women said they were harassed and groped. Gerald Group, a metals trader with a tradition of throwing a party at the Playboy Club, plans to choose a different venue next year.

With attention on the #MeToo movement sweeping the world and major companies dealing with PR crises from sexual harassment, there’s an unprecedented focus on how women are treated in the workplace. The movement has been followed in France under the social media hashtag #BalanceTonPorc or "out your pig," but the effect in the corporate world has been minimal.

In January, a group of 100 women including actress Catherine Deneuve promoted in a column “the freedom to bother, essential for sexual freedom” and denounced a wave of “puritanism,” which in France is commonly associated with the U.S. and opposed to the French way of seduction. Deneuve said a week later that she did not support harassment and apologized.

The French agricultural sector remains male-dominated, despite major inroads recently, including the appointment of Christiane Lambert, the first woman to oversee the main farming union FNSEA. It’s a change from around 40 years ago, when farmers from the same union attacked Edith Cresson, the first female agriculture minister, with signs saying, "We hope you’re better in bed than at the ministry."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.