France moves to punish street harassment, faces legal obstacles

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein abuse scandal, a new dialogue about sexual harassment and assault has opened in France. 

At the forefront of the conversation is author and blogger Marlène Schiappa, who was appointed the secretary of gender equality under French President Emmanuel Macron early this year. Schiappa has been working to tighten regulations on sexual harassment and assault; she has already spearheaded legislation imposing harsh fines for workplace harassment and a longer statute of limitations for the assault of a minor.

During the summer, Schiappa noticed yet another flaw in France’s sexual harassment policy—a lack of punishment for street harassment. Schiappa’s plan to combat catcalling and harassment in her home country involves imposing strict fines that would be given to offenders. The fines in Schiappa’s policy could go as high as €5,000, or approximately $5,909. 

This proposed new policy has raised questions about how to lawfully define sexual harassment. For instance, a woman knows the difference between harassment and flirtation when she experiences it, according to Schiappa. 

“You don’t have to follow girls on two, three streets and ask her 20 times for her phone number,” Schiappa said in an interview with NPR on Aug. 26. 

Legal definitions, however, must be exact, and the prospect of deciding how to best address street harassment has sparked debate. Some of Schiappa’s critics, for instance, are unsure of how the law could be put into action. 

Street harassment is often short and hard for a bystander to catch. Not only this, but it is also often cumulative—experiencing these unwanted sexual comments again and again is what causes real harm. Other skeptics reportedly doubt whether fining street harassers would have much effect.

Schiappa, however, is persevering. Her own experiences and the hopes of safer streets for her 10-year-old daughter drive her. 

“Our body belongs to us,” she said in an interview with The New York Times on Aug. 28. “It doesn’t belong to men. And we have to say it louder: our body, our rules.”

Some have suggested implementing a similar policy in the United States. As in France, however, there are some major reservations. Author Maureen Sherry, who writes for Fortune Magazine, explained her take on the situation in an article titled “France Wants to Outlaw Catcalling. Here’s Why the U.S. Shouldn’t” that Fortune published on Aug. 31. It is essential to put free speech first in the U.S., according to Sherry.

Sherry maintains that she does not advocate that women should passively accept harassment. She instead implores women and bystanders on the street to take justice into their own hands—which may entail speaking up and shaming the catcaller right then and there. 

“Younger women are onto this idea. I’ve watched women Facebook Live themselves as they confront catcallers,” Sherry said. “When women confront offenders, the look on men’s faces is consistently one of embarrassment. The last thing a man wants is to be shamed in front of his friends, and I’d argue that the punishment fits the crime, maybe more than a ticket, fine, or some bureaucratic process.” 

Whether by law or by individual will, throughout the world women agree: they have the right to resist harassment in public spaces. How they will resolve this issue, however, remains undetermined and highly contested.