France plans fines for catcalls as women speak out on harassment

Social media debate may push forward changes not only in culture but also in law
In France, a chauvinistic culture has long enabled powerful men to misbehave with impunity.
In France, a chauvinistic culture has long enabled powerful men to misbehave with impunity.

On Friday afternoon, journalist Sandra Muller turned to Twitter to recall a humiliating and inappropriate sexual come-on from a powerful French executive.

“You have big breasts. You are my type of woman. I will make you orgasm all night,” she quoted him as having said, adding the hashtag #BalanceTonPorc, or “Expose Your Pig.”

By Tuesday, tens of thousands of Frenchwomen had heeded that call, posting disturbing accounts of sexual harassment and abuse, although most stopped short of identifying their harassers.

This response to the scandal engulfing Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein was akin to the Twitter outpouring in the United States and elsewhere under the hashtag #MeToo, inspired in part by a tweet from actress Alyssa Milano. In France, however, where a chauvinistic culture has long enabled powerful men to misbehave with impunity,the social media debate may push forward changes not only in the culture but also in the law.

Proposals are under discussion to fine men for aggressive catcalling or lecherous behavior toward women in public, to extend the statute of limitations in cases of sexual assault involving minors, and to create a new age ceiling under which minors cannot legally consent to a sexual relationship.

Marlène Schiappa, a feminist and writer who is France’s junior minister for gender equality, said Monday that the government was considering precisely how to define street harassment and how much to fine. The government would consult legal professionals on its proposals and hold workshops for citizens across the country, she said, aiming to put measures before parliament next year.

Speaking to RTL radio, Schiappa said she had been deeply struck by the response to the #BalanceTonPorc hashtag.

“We all have stories of harassment and assault,” she said, adding: “One of my best friends said something with this hashtag that she had never told our group of friends. This hashtag, with the barrier created by a screen, can help people speak out, and I think that it is truly beneficial.”

Some commentators argued that sexual harassment accusations would be better handled in a courtroom than on social media. “Denouncing sexual harassment on a social network with a hashtag isn’t the appropriate place at all,” Christophe Noël, a labor lawyer, warned on France Info. “It can rebound on the accuser and create an open door to excesses and defamation.”

Muller, the journalist who first tweeted the “Expose Your Pig” hashtag, said in a phone interview Tuesday that although she was overwhelmed by the hundreds of reactions she had received, she didn’t want Twitter to become a tribunal. “I’m not a judge,” she said.

Two lawyers for the executive Muller named in her tweet demanded Tuesday that she delete it; one of the lawyers, Nicolas Bénoit, called her accusation a case of defamation but declined to comment further. The executive did not respond to requests for an interview.

In France, the Weinstein affair has recalled the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former International Monetary Fund chief and one-time presidential contender who was arrested in New York in 2011 and accused of assaulting a hotel housekeeper. Those charges were dropped, but helped dent a long-standing French reluctance to breach the privacy of public figures, no matter their sexual transgressions.

Sandrine Rousseau, a former leader of the French Green Party and leading advocate for victims of sexual harassment, said the Weinstein case had particular resonance in France because women had suffered in silence for so long.

Rousseau was one of a dozen women who in 2016 accused a Green Party legislator, Denis Baupin, of sexual harassment, saying he had pushed her up against a wall and kissed her against her will. Baupin, who resigned as vice president of France’s National Assembly, denied the accusations and the case was dropped on the grounds that too much time had elapsed.

“DSK was the first blow, and Baupin the second one,” Rousseau said in an interview, referring to the initials of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. “The Weinstein revelations have had a strong echo in France, because what used to be seen as naughtiness is now being considered as sexual harassment.”

Rousseau said “Expose Your Pig” was a good start, but words needed to be translated into action, and successful legal cases remained rare. According to a 2016 study by IFOP, a leading pollster, just 65 of the 1,048 sexual harassment lawsuits in France in 2014 led to a conviction.

But the atmosphere may be changing. In December, Georges Tron, who was a mayor and a government official under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, will stand trial on accusations of rape and sexual harassment after two women said he had assaulted them in a locked room in the town hall when he was mayor of Draveil, south of Paris. Tron resigned in 2011 over the accusations, which he denies.

In Europe, several countries have moved in recent years to criminalize sexual harassment, including Portugal, where the left-leaning government in 2015 made verbal sexual abuse a crime with a fine of up to 120 euros ($142). Belgium has also moved against sexual harassment and in 2014 introduced penalties including a jail sentence of up to one year for remarks intending to express contempt for a person because of his or her gender.

In a sign of how French mores have evolved, President Emanuel Macron on Sunday announced that he had begun the procedure to strip Weinstein of France’s highest award, the Legion of Honor, which he had received in 2012 for his work promoting foreign cinema in the United States.

Brigitte Macron, the French first lady, has congratulated victims of sexual harassment or violence for sharing their stories, and she expressed hope that something positive could come out of the “bad” of the Weinstein affair.

Several French actresses are among the more than two dozen women who have stepped forward with accusations against Weinstein, among them Florence Darel, Judith Godrèche, and Léa Seydoux, who starred in the James Bond film “Spectre.”

Seydoux wrote in The Guardian newspaper that when she first encountered Weinstein, he asked her to meet him for a drink and that he invited her to his hotel room.

“It was hard to say no because he’s so powerful,” she wrote. “We were talking on the sofa when he suddenly jumped on me and tried to kiss me. I had to defend myself. He’s big and fat, so I had to be forceful to resist him. I left his room, thoroughly disgusted.”

She added: “I wasn’t afraid of him, though. Because I knew what kind of man he was all along.”

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