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France considers sexual harassment laws after MPs whistle at minister

France is debating new laws on sexual harassment – but they won’t come soon enough to stop wolf-whistling in parliament.

Male MPs hooted and whistled at Cecile Duflot as she presented a routine report to parliament last week.
Male MPs hooted and whistled at Cecile Duflot as she presented a routine report to parliament last week.
Image: AP/National Assembly of France

THE HOOTING and wolf-whistles began as soon as the Cabinet minister stood, wearing a blue-and-white flowered dress. It did not cease for the entire time she spoke before France’s National Assembly.

And the heckling came not from an unruly crowd, but from male legislators who later said they were merely showing their appreciation on a warm summer’s day.

Cecile Duflot, the housing minister, faltered very slightly, and then continued with her prepared remarks about an urban development project in Paris.

“Ladies and gentlemen, but mostly gentlemen, obviously,” she said in a firm voice as hoots rang out. She completed the statement on her ministry and again sat down.

None of the men in suits who preceded her got the same treatment from the deputies, and the reaction was extraordinary enough to draw television commentary and headlines for days afterward.

The same French Assembly today took up a new law on sexual harassment, more than two months after a court struck down the previous statute, saying it was too vague and failed to protect women.

In the meantime, there has been nothing. All cases that were pending when the law was struck down May 4 were thrown out. And, without a law, there can be no new cases.

The government, keenly aware of the lack of protection since the May 4 court decision, has pressed for a quick vote. It has already passed the Senate. The two versions will ultimately have to be reconciled before a final vote next week.

“The more we delay the law’s passage, the longer we delay … this incredible insecurity, this incredible lack of protection for victims of sexual harassment.” said Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s minister for women’s rights, who helped write the law.

It takes 24 months for any judge to hear a sexual harassment complaint under the law, she said, so any cases brought even as soon as it is passed will take two years to see a courtroom.

“Women are very, very, very harassed and they don’t dare say it,” said Helene Reboisson, a former jeweller who said she supported the law. “Men have the power. It will take several years for us women.”

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Under the new proposal, sexual harassment will be a criminal offence, punishable by up to three years in prison. In the United States, it’s a civil offence usually punishable by fines.

“Women will no longer be without protection, that’s the most important thing,” said Asma Guenifi, president of the feminist group Neither Prostitutes nor Doormats.

But Guenifi said she had reservations about the replacement law, primarily its maximum punishment of three years in prison and the three escalating categories of harassment. ”My fear today is that this new law won’t be clear enough, protective enough or global enough,” she said.

The new legislation will extend to cover offenses in universities, in the housing market and job interviews, and is intended to punish single acts of sexual blackmail as sexual harassment – previously only covering repeated acts.

But in a culture where hissing at women on the street is considered a sign of approval and sexual banter is often a workplace norm, Guenifi said the law could be a hard sell for women under pressure to keep their jobs in a difficult economy – especially if it comes from the same group of lawmakers who last week disrupted a normally routine presentation from government ministers.

Guenifi said the reaction to Duflot in the July 17 Assembly session was disappointing, but unsurprising.

“We knew that sexism and machismo touches all socioeconomic classes, but it’s very sad because everyone can identify with it, saying, ‘Even there they don’t respect women,’” she said.

Duflot – who came under criticism after wearing jeans to her first Cabinet meeting this year – said she was shocked at the reaction last week in the Assembly, which came from scattered male deputies. The Assembly has 153 women out of 577 deputies.

- Lori Hinnant

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Associated Press

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