Opinion piece in Le Monde by group of female filmmakers accuses Cannes Film Festival of shutting women directors out.

A fierce debate over whether the Cannes Film Festival is sexist or not has exploded on the eve of its opening this Wednesday, following a high-profile opinion piece in the Le Monde accusing the event of sexism.

The article published on Saturday and signed by Baise Moi director Virginie Despentes, filmmaker Coline Serreau and actress Fanny Cottonçon attacked the festival over the lack of women in competition this year.

Feminist group La Barbe (the beard), which was behind the initiative, simultaneously launched an online petition. By Monday morning, more than 1,000 people, mainly women involved in the French film world, had signed up.

“The directors of the 22 films in competition this year are all, by happy coincidence, men. For the 63rd time in its existence, the festival will crown one of its own, defending without fail the virile values which are the nobility of the seventh art.” Despentes, Serreau and Cottonçon wrote.

“Once in 1993, the Golden Palm was awarded to a female director, Jane Campion. And in 2011, probably due to a lack of vigilance, four women featured among the 20 nominees in competition,” it continued.

“This year, gentlemen you’ve come to your senses and we are overjoyed. The Cannes Film Festival will allow Wes, Jacques, Leos, David, Lee, Andrew, Matteo, Michael, John, Hong, Im, Abbas, Ken, Sergei, Cristian, Yousry, Jeff, Alain, Carlos, Walter, Ulrich and Thomas to show one more time that “men like depth in women, but only in their cleavage.”

Overall there are seven female directors, all French, premiering features across the key sections of the festival.

Catherine Corsini’s Three Worlds (Trois mondes), Sylvie Verheyde’s Confession of a Child of the Century and Aida Begic’s Djeca are screening in Un Certain Regard. Noemie Lvovsky’s Camille Rewinds will close Directors’ Fortnight and Sandrine Bonnaire’s J’enrage de son absence and Anne Winocour’s debut picture Augustine premiere in Critics’ Week.

Candida Brady’s environmental documentary Trashed featuring Jeremy Irons, will receive a special screening. 

“You have worked out how to prevent women from finding a place in this protected environment… Above all we mustn’t let young girls get the idea that one day they could have the audacity to make a film and climb the steps to the palace on their own merit rather than on the arm of a prince charming,” the article continued.

Festival director Thierry Fremaux responded to the article on Sunday with a statement denying the accusations.

“As a citizen, I fully support feminist activism, as a professional, I select work on the basis of it actual qualities. We would never agree to select a film that doesn’t deserve it on the basis it was made by a woman. That would lead to a quota policy that would undermine the cause,” he said.

“There is no doubt that greater space needs to be given to women within cinema. But it’s not at Cannes and in the month of May that this question needs to be raised, but rather all year and everywhere. Women’s rights need be defended beyond Cannes, which is a consequence and illustration of what is going on. It makes sense to highlight the problem during Cannes, but accusing the festival doesn’t serve anybody,” he concluded.

In the backdrop the debate continues to run within the French media, with top women’s magazines like Gala, Elle and Au Feminin posting the link for the online petition on their sites under articles headlined “Sexism on the Croisette”, “The Cannes Film Festival, is it sexist?” and “Cannes Film Festival 2012: Where are the women?”

Members of La Barbe are expected to descend of the Croisette during the festival. It is a debate that looks set to run.