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PARIS – She quickly seduced French officialdom after arriving from Ukraine, winning political asylum within a year of her application. Her visage, framed in blond hair crowned with flowers, helped inspire France's latest postage stamp.
Few French people knew back then that they were dealing with a radical soldier for the feminist cause, in town to organize the ranks of women for a radical insurgency with bare breasts as weapons.
The sweet start for 23-year-old Inna Shevchenko is souring. The defiant chief of the Ukraine-born Femen movement now risks up to five years in prison and a 75,000-euro ($103,000) fine for bashing brand new bells at Notre Dame Cathedral a year ago — and allegedly damaging one. Dressed only in pantyhose, she and eight others were celebrating the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
The trial for the nine was postponed from Wednesday to July 9. A second trial begins March 14 for a single Femen activist for simulating abortion in Paris' famed Eglise de la Madeleine.
Femen has orchestrated a raft of bare-breasted protests with a range of targets: near the Vatican, in front of Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, near the Grand Mosque of Paris and in several churches outside France, including at Christmas Mass at Cologne Cathedral. There, a single topless woman with "I am God" painted on her chest briefly jumped onto the altar.
Boldness is clearly in Shevchenko's blood. She fled Ukraine in 2012 after taking a buzz saw to a huge wood cross, risking prison. Today, she is nonchalant about that risk.
"Of course, I was scared" after the Ukraine protest, she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "But this is not that fear that will make you stop your activity. We are scared to not be able to continue our activity."
"We are not a political party who wants to find fans. We are not a rock band," she said. "We're a bunch of angry women."
Shevchenko has announced plans to expand Femen's footprint from nine countries mostly in Europe to the United States, most likely in New York or Washington D.C. The group's Ukraine headquarters has been shut down.
"We are this sort of detonator," she said. "We go where the problem is."
That includes houses of worship, which she says are responsible for patriarchal laws that subjugate women.
The plan to add a U.S. branch coincides with a wave of criticism of Femen and questions about why Socialist President Francois Hollande officially approved a stamp representing "Marianne," the national symbol since the French Revolution, that resembles Shevchenko. One conservative lawmaker wants the stamp withdrawn. Another conservative wants the group declared a sect, which would make it illegal in France.
Hundreds of people from the ultra-conservative Roman Catholic group Civitas to far-right supporters held a protest in Paris recently against Femen.
Femen, founded in 2008, sees itself as the cutting edge of feminism, "ringing the (alarm) bell" as it did in Ukraine, well before the nearly three months of deadly protests now against President Viktor Yanukovych's government. In December, Femen activists in France urinated on portraits of Yanukovych in front of the Ukraine Embassy.
British sociologist and feminist scholar Kristin Aune sees Femen as part of an apparent resurgence of feminist movements, but suggested that Femen's protest tactics are out of synch with the West.
"In a way, they have taken an old-fashioned feminist view," said Aune. "In the '60s and '70s, feminists said religion is terrible but later saw it as possibly liberating."
In Aune's opinion, some Femen causes are more worthy than others, such as fighting sexual tourism as the group did in Ukraine. But Femen's heavy focus on religion, including Islam, in protest operations in Western Europe and in Tunisia may reflect a failure to fully understand the "diversity that exists in Christianity and Islam," she said.
Femen's most audacious activist was a Tunisian who spent more than two months behind bars last year after her arrest in May for allegedly scrawling the word Femen on a cemetery wall. Amina Sboui, who also posted topless photos of herself online, is also the best known Femen dropout; she renounced the group because of what she called its anti-Islam stance.
Femen has about 40 activists in France who take part in protests and 350 members who help out, Shevchenko said, adding that it has 250 activists in nine countries.
The large building north of Paris that became Femen headquarters two months ago — after the group's Paris digs mysteriously burned down — features a training room to keep activists fit and where 100 pushups every Saturday are de rigueur. The walls are covered with Femen slogans like "My Boobs, My Bombs," ''My Body, My Gun," ''We Are Soldiers Of Freedom."
Critics claim Femen thrives on media attention more than improving the lot of womankind. Yet one leading feminist network in France was careful not object to Femen tactics.
"We think our techniques are, perhaps, more effective," said Anne-Cecil Mailfert, spokeswoman for Dare Feminism. "But what is certain is they are the target of attacks by the right and extreme right .... Anti-feminists will do everything to make them look like a dangerous, crazy movement."
Femen is mostly ignored in other European countries where protests are staged, including Spain, West Germany and Sweden. In a recent TV documentary series, Swedish feminist Belinda Olsson questioned whether the movement has a clear motive or was just a bunch of "exhibitionists showing their tits."
Two women who claim to have left Femen France have harshly criticized the movement and its leader in interviews with two French publications, both speaking anonymously. One told the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur that Shevchenko behaved like a queen. It failed to upset the Femen leader, who conceded the movement is organized in a strict hierarchy with her on top.
"Some women can feel like they're in the army. We act like an army, yes," she said. "There are soldiers, but every soldier can become a general."
For Shevchenko, the medium is clearly the message.
"We are this group who is irritating our enemy," Shevchenko said. "We do not care about how many people will not like us."
Malin Rising in Stockholm and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.