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Sexual harassment and assault

France to fine catcallers and street harassers, but fails to set a firm age of sexual consent

‘Some say we will kill the culture of the French lover if we punish street harassment. But it’s the opposite’

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 2:39pm
UPDATED : Monday, 21 May, 2018, 8:10pm

Men who whistle and catcall women on the streets of France may soon face stiff punishment.

On Wednesday, lawmakers in the National Assembly – France’s lower house of Parliament – passed measures to curb sexual violence. Among them: People caught harassing women on the street could be fined up to US$885. Also, underage rape victims would have more time to file complaints.

However, lawmakers did not set a firm legal age of consent.

President Emmanuel Macron said the proposals, which await approval by the Senate, would make it so “women are not afraid to be outside”.

The bill defines street harassment broadly, as anything that “infringes the freedom of movement of women in public spaces and undermines self-esteem and the right to security”. Officials cited examples such as whistling at a woman, badgering her for her phone number or following her down the street.

Fines will range from US$110 to US$885 and must be paid on the spot. Repeat offenders could face penalties of up to US$3,500.

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About 83 per cent of French women say they have faced harassment on the street.

The measure has many supporters, but it also has attracted sceptics, who say it might be difficult to enforce and could end up punishing men for mere flirting.

Between consenting adults, everything is allowed – we can seduce, talk. But if someone says ‘no,’ it’s ‘no,’ and it’s final
Marlène Schiappa, minister for gender equality

As sexual harassment and predatory behaviour are being reassessed amid the wide-reaching #MeToo movement, some women in France have offered a counterpoint.

Earlier this year, more than 100 prominent Frenchwomen – journalists, actresses, doctors and artists – signed an open letter that questioned whether the push for harsher punishment would undermine romance and seduction, long cherished by the French.

“Rape is a crime,” the women wrote. “Insistently or awkwardly hitting on someone is not.” The signatories also defended “a freedom to importune, which is indispensable to sexual freedom.”

But France’s minister for gender equality pushed back.

“There is some reluctance; some say we will kill the culture of the ‘French lover’ if we punish street harassment,” Marlène Schiappa told reporters.

“But it’s the opposite. We want to preserve seduction, chivalry and ‘l’amour à la française’ by saying what is key is consent. Between consenting adults, everything is allowed – we can seduce, talk. But if someone says ‘no,’ it’s ‘no,’ and it’s final.

“We know very well at what point we start feeling intimidated, unsafe or harassed in the street.”

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The legislation also would tweak France’s age-of-consent rules. But it doesn’t go nearly as far as some activists would have liked.

Lawmakers first proposed making it illegal for someone over 18 to have sex with someone under 15. It came in response to a recent case in which a man in his 20s was not convicted of raping the 11-year-old girl he had sex with because there was no evidence of coercion. He was instead convicted of the lesser crime of sexual abuse. That ruling was widely mocked.

But France’s highest administrative court warned that setting a firm legal age of consent “could be seen as violating an adult’s presumption of innocence and would be therefore declared unconstitutional”.

Instead, lawmakers opted to classify sex with a minor under 15 as rape if the child “lacked the necessary discernment to consent”.

They also gave rape victims several more years to press charges if they are assaulted before they turn 18. Right now, victims have 20 years after their 18th birthday to file a complaint. Under the new measure, that would be bumped up to 30 years.

The measures enjoy widespread public support. One poll found that about 90 per cent of respondents supported the ban on street harassment. About 70 per cent were in favour of setting an minimum age for sexual consent.