France Moves to Outlaw Suggestive Catcalling

By Fayçal Benhassain | August 9, 2018 | 7:56 PM EDT

Catcalling and lewd comments in public places could lead to fines for offenders under the new law. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Paris ( – French women have long complained about sexual harassment and suggestive or vulgar comments in the workplace or on the street, and now have a new law that will attempt to tackle the problem.

The country’s lower house of parliament has voted for a broad sexual violence law that also criminalizes gender-based harassment, in word or deed, after reaching agreement with the Senate which approved the legislation in July.

It incorporates a new offense – the covert taking of indecent pictures, for instance using a mirror or small camera to look up women’s skirts on stairways. Offenders could face two years’ imprisonment and fines of up to around $35,000 in cases with aggravating circumstances.

The vote came at a time when harassment was back in the public eye, after a 22-year-old student was assaulted on a Paris street after challenging a man for making obscene remarks.

Marie Laguerre was hit in front of a coffee shop, in an incident witnesses by many people. She obtained security camera footage from the cafe owner and filed an official complaint. Police are hunting for the assailant.

Women’s associations and media outlets have long called for tougher laws against sexual harassment and welcomed the law as a move in the right direction.

Gender equality minister Marlène Schiappa, who championed the law, said application would begin in the fall.

She said it aims to uphold the freedom of women to walk in public places free from harassment. It would also hopefully encourage witnesses to come forward so that victims have support when making complaints.

Catcalling and unwanted lewd comments directed at women in public places or on public transport will fall under the new law, and anyone convicted of street harassment will face fines of between $104 and $868.

A weakness is the law, according to Benoit Barret, general secretary of the Police Alliance union, is that the offense needs to be witnesses by an officer.

“There will not be a police officer behind every woman in France,” he observed.

Despite this, Laguerre said as long as the law sends a message, that will be enough for her.

Fatima Benomar, co-founder of a women’s group association called Cheeky, said because the new law deals with “in the act” harassment or catcalling, it may not be enough to stop bad behavior. What’s really needed, she said, is education on the subject, beginning as young as possible.

Harassment in French law is defined as imposing on a person, repeatedly, sexually suggestive comments or conduct, which offends the targeted person’s dignity because of its degrading or humiliating character, or creates a situation that is intimidating, hostile or offensive.

Also constituting harassment are attempts to put pressure on someone “for the purpose of obtaining an act of a sexual nature for oneself or for a third person.”

Some French women commenting on social media said that even when complaints are filed male police officers often do not take them seriously.

Complainants must lodge a complaint with law enforcement officers or prosecutors. An inquiry is launched, but many women don’t have proof to back up their allegations. Only five percent of complaints lead to a satisfactory conclusion, according to estimates reported in women’s media outlets.

Women’s associations and media commentators admit that it can be difficult to distinguish between an offense from a joke in poor taste. But they encourage women to talk to as many people as possible about the incident, and to put the complaint in writing. Both of those steps could be useful if the case does end up going to court.

The “#MeToo” movement that emerged in the U.S. with accusations of sexual harassment, assault and rape by powerful men in film media and other sectors pushed many French women to start talking about the matter and denouncing acts against them.

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