“I SAW Catherine Deneuve was trending and I wondered if she had died,” someone in Ontario posted on Twitter midweek. “It turned out to be so much worse.” And that was one of the more reasonable anti-Deneuve comments that have been circulating lately.

Deneuve, an icon of French cinema, was one of 100 leading French women who signed an open letter to Le Monde newspaper criticising what they described as the new “puritanism” around sexuality in the wake of the torrent of “denunciations” of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in the wake of allegations of sexual assault.

The letter attacked the fast-growing #MeToo movement and its French equivalent #BalanceTonPorc (Expose your pig).

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“Rape is a crime”, it began. “But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression. As a result of the Weinstein affair, there has been a legitimate realisation of the sexual violence women experience, particularly in the workplace, where some men abuse their power. It was necessary. But now this liberation of speech has been turned on its head.”

The women argued that the #MeToo movement had unleashed a flood of public accusations, the result of which had been that undeserving people had been placed in the same category as sex offenders without being given the chance to defend themselves.

“This expedited justice already has its victims, men prevented from practicing their profession as punishment, forced to resign, etc., while the only thing they did wrong was touching a knee, trying to steal a kiss, or speaking about ‘intimate’ things at a work dinner, or sending messages with sexual connotations to a woman whose feelings were not mutual.”

Though Deneuve had her supporters on social media – some praised her for, in their view, calling out the “excesses” of the #MeToo movement – much of the public response was hostile. The Italian actor Asia Argento, one of the first women to publicly accuse Weinstein, tweeted: “Catherine Deneuve and other French women tell the world how their interiorized misogyny has lobotomised them to the point of no return.”

A group of French feminists responded with an angry letter of their own, describing the signatories as “apologists for rape” and added: “Those who signed the letter deliberately conflated seduction, based on respect and pleasure, with violence … these signatories are for the most part recidivists in the matter of defending child abusers or apologists for rape.”

Their reference to “defenders of paedophiles” stems from Deneuve’s defence last year of Roman Polanski, the film director who, 41 years ago, pleaded guilty to having sex with a girl of 13. Deneuve declared: “It’s a case that has been dealt with, it’s a case that has been judged. There have been agreements between Roman Polanski and this woman.”

Polanksi biographer John Parker writes that Deneuve was born into a highly-respectable theatrical family in Paris in 1943. She appeared in a handful of films and, Parker adds, “was shy, fragile-looking and in the shadow of her more vivacious sister [Francoise] when she was ‘discovered’ by Roger Vadim.” Vadim, with whom Deneuve had a son at 19, cast her in two films.

Her breakthrough film, in 1964, was Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), director Jacques Demy’s “film in song”, in which she played a 17-year-old woman who becomes pregnant to a 20-year-old car mechanic just before he leaves for a two-year combat spell with the army in Algeria.

Polanski himself cast her in his psychological thriller, Repulsion, and in 1967 she became a global star thanks to Luis Bunuel’s classic film, Belle de Jour. To quote the film’s own blurb Deneuve is “a virginal newly-wed … who indulges her sadomasochistic tendencies by day, working in a high-class Parisian brothel”.

Her many other films have included Francois Truffaut’s The Last Metro, Potiche, Dancer in the Dark, The Hunger, 8 Women and Indochine – for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. According to the IMDb website she auditioned for the role that went to Meryl Streep in The Bridges of Madison County and rejected the role of Bond girl Tracy Di Vicenzo for the 1969 007 film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

She has never been slow to speak her mind. As the film writer Kaleem Aftab wrote last summer: “One of the pleasures of interviewing Deneuve is that she is always to the point, sometimes blunt and very astute. She says what she means and is happy to contradict questions if she deems that they are missing the point, or more accurately, her point of view.”

Whatever the view of her now, Deneuve is a woman who takes responsibility for everything she has said and done. As she once commented: "I know who I am, how I was. I don't want to know how I will be because nobody knows that."

Despite the mostly hostile reaction, Deneuve and her fellow signatories have attracted some support - though one suspects they were not looking for support but rather to provoke a reaction. On Thursday, another of the 100 signatories, the French journalist Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, wrote: “There’s nothing like la grande dame of French films joining four of your friends to write and sign, with 95 other Frenchwomen, an open letter supporting our inalienable right to galanterie, to the complexities of a grown-up sex life, and to not seeing all men as guilty until proven so.”