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Are 100% of women harassed on French public transport?

Lionel Bonaventure, AFP | In France, six out of ten women say they worry about aggression in the metro

According to a French government study, 100 percent of women have experienced sexual harassment or worse on public transport. While it illustrates a real problem, FRANCE 24 found the figure was presented out of context.


To illustrate the growing distress of female public transport users, the High Council for equality between men and women (HCEfh) included the testimonies of numerous women in the report published on April 16 and entitled “Report on sexist harassment and sexual violence in public transport”.

“In a crowded metro, I felt a man’s erect penis against my bum. There were lots of people and I was worried that no one would help me. I elbowed him in the chest and stepped on his foot, but I made it look like an accident. That made him back off,” one such account stated.

In the report, which was commissioned by the State Secretary for Women’s Rights, Pascale Boistard, the HCEfh indicates widespread predatory behavior against women in buses, trains and metros within France. Indeed, it says that 100 percent of female public transport users have experienced harassment or sexual aggression at one time or another.

The HCEfh claims that all French women have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual attention while riding on public transport.

Can this really be true? Well, not exactly.

Weaknesses in the report

When contacted by FRANCE 24, the HCEfh's spokeswoman contextualized the figures, providing information that was not included in the report. The group admitted that it did not hire a research institute, but instead calculated the statistics from a sample of 300 women who had all participated in a public consultation about women’s roles in the public space and… harassment in public transport. This means that all of the women polled were already concerned by the subject in question.

Another weakness is the lack of information about the women polled. While the women were interviewed in Essonne and in Seine-Saint-Denis [two departments in the Île-de-France region where the public consultations were held], they were not asked if they live there. This makes it unclear whether the 100 percent refers to just these two departments or all of France. Once again, the HCEfh did not specify.

There were other glarings gaps in the survey, such as the age of participants.

The report’s inconsistencies do not negate that there are serious threats to women's safety on public transport in France. However, the lack of thoroughness in the study risks discrediting the entire body of work.

National plan of action

To its credit, the paper does highlight the issue of women’s safety in public transport, reminding us that “harassment is not flirting, neither is it flattery.” It also makes 15 recommendations to help the government better protect citizens.

Some suggestions draw heavily from systems already in place in other countries. One is the “entre deux arrêts” or “between two stops” system, which allows for “a person travelling alone, who does not feel safe” to ask the bus driver to stop in between stops if it is closer to the traveler’s destination. This programme is already in practise in several major cities in Canada.

Other recommendations include opening an online platform where public transport users can report incidents, as well as an awareness-raising campaign (including posters, stickers and audio messages) to remind travelers of their rights and responsibilities.

Finally, the report also called for SOS phone boxes to be made widely available on metro platforms or in stations as well as printing the emergency phone number (3117) on metro tickets.

The goal of all of these recommendations is to ensure that women can “use public transportation and public spaces without being put in danger or threatened. This is a fundamental liberty,” Boistard said.

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