France passes new sexual harassment law


JUST WEEKS after a government minister was greeted with heckles and catcalls by male deputies when she wore a dress in the lower house, the French parliament has unanimously adopted a law to make sexual harassment an offence punishable by up to three years in jail.

The new law, which also provides for a fine of up to €45,000, was rushed through parliament after the striking-out of previous legislation in May saw all sexual harassment cases going through the courts being dropped.

The constitutional court said the previous statute was too vague and failed to protect women.

“Victims can once again seek justice and will be better armed since the crime is better defined and covers a wider spectrum, and the penalties are more proportionate to the seriousness of the offence,” said justice minister Christiane Taubira.

Under the new law, the most serious harassment – where the harasser has authority over the victim, the victim is under 15 years, or multiple people carry out the harassment – will be punishable by up to three years in prison. Acts that would merit the most lenient, one-year punishment include repeated gestures or sexually suggestive actions intended to create an intimidating environment.

Sexual harassment has a much broader definition in the new law to allow for a range of different situations, including “intimidating, hostile or offensive” incidents.

It covers not just the workplace but universities, the housing market and job interviews.

The law has been welcomed by feminists and rights groups as a significant step in a country where sexism and sexual harassment have been intensely debated in recent times.

The issues were put in the spotlight after former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexual assault last year.

Although the charges were later dropped, the case set off anguished debate about gender inequality and led to demands for a change in the law.

In the National Assembly last month, just days before the lower house voted on the new sexual harassment Bill, male deputies made catcalls as housing minister Cécile Duflot spoke about an urban renewal project.

“Ladies and gentlemen, but mostly gentlemen, obviously,” she said, visibly taken aback, as the heckles drowned out her voice. Ms Duflot was wearing a blue-and-white floral dress at the time.

“I worked in the building and construction sector and I never saw that,” she said afterwards. “It says something about certain deputies . . . I think about their wives. I think about all the men who aren’t like that.”

One of the male deputies was unrepentant, denying the outburst was intended to be offensive: “We weren’t booing or whistling at Cécile Duflot. We were admiring,”

Patrick Balkany, of the conservative UMP, suggested to Le Figaro Ms Duflot wore the dress “so that we wouldn’t listen to what she has to say.”

Another deputy, Jacques Myard, told L’Express magazine the hoots were a way of “paying homage to this woman’s beauty.”