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Paris high school protests against sexual harassment

Bertrand Guay, AFP | A picture shows the messages "#Me too" and #Balancetonporc ("expose your pig") on the hand of a protester during a gathering against gender-based and sexual violence called by the Effronte-e-s Collective, at Place de la Republique.

Hundreds of French students protested Thursday against sexual harassment at their suburban Paris school, angrily waving banners and using bins to blockade the entrance of the Pissarro high school in Pontoise.

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The protest is unprecedented in France.

It all began when Shanley, an 18-year-old pupil, took to Facebook to speak out about the sexual harassment she has been subjected to and asked her fellow students to help her.

The following day, the French daily Le Parisien reported that nearly 300 students had heard her call and gathered outside the school gates, with both boys and girls vocally supporting her.

In comments to the newspaper, one student explained how her classmate would make suggestive motions at her while in class: “The boy sitting beside me mimes sexual acts. They do not know what they are doing, for them it is just a joke.”

Nyssia, another student, explained how when girls call out this inappropriate behaviour, “they are just seen to be overreacting”.

For these students, the harassment has to stop.

One girl at the rally said that morale is at breaking point. “We are at our wits' end. I cried on Saturday; it’s too much. Even those who are not directly affected by it can feel the tense atmosphere at the school.”

In response to the protest, the school principal has consulted with student representatives.

Marie-Ange Tomi, who oversees education policy for the Pontoise district as deputy director at the Academy of Versailles, has also announced that a “team for the prevention of criminal misbehaviour will soon start in Pissarro”. But she adds that it is up to teachers to be “responsible for student safety and report to the principal any inappropriate behaviour”.

For protest organiser Shanley, one of the key demands of students is for “teachers to step in” because “to say and do nothing is to tolerate this behaviour”.

Yet, according to Le Parisien, the teachers have no idea how to tackle the problem.

Véronique Etienne, a school professor in nearby Argenteuil explained, “We do not see it, we do not spot it and sometimes we do not even react to the insults we hear in the corridors, [as these words] are in the current vocabulary.” For Etienne, it is then essential that not only staff, but parents and students too, are made aware of the problem.

A national problem?

According to accounts given to Le Parisien by students outside Pissarro, the problem is not isolated to this school with one girl explaining how insults and groping were a daily occurrence at her middle school.

A study by the French National Department for Education only hints at what might be the extent of France’s problem with sexual harassment and abuse. The study reveals that between 2016 and 2017, 2.1 percent of students surveyed reported having been victims of sexual violence, while 4.4 percent complained of harassment.

In comments to Le Parisien, Sabine Salmon, president of the group Femmes Solidaires, suspects that in reality the problem is more widespread than any study can suggest. Salmon recounts how last year, over the course of 11,000 meetings organised by her movement, “100 percent of girls raised their hands when asked if they have ever been victims of sexism or harassment”.

This gap between the departments statistics and Salmon’s own experience highlights the difficulty in conducting accurate studies on the scale of sexual harassment. Emotional trauma, bullying or fear of reprisals are just a few of the many reasons why victims may choose not to speak out.

The #MeToo campaigns in the wake of the revelations surrounding Harvey Weinstein have seen thousands of women and men take to social media to speak out, making harassment front-page news. In France, women have been sharing their stories using the #BalanceTonPorc, or "Squeal on your pig," Twitter hashtag.

French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled a series of new measures in November to educate secondary school children about pornography and to simplify the system for reporting crimes of rape and assault to the police.

Proposals for a 2018 draft law include the criminalisation of street harassment and extending the statute of limitation for the rape of minors from 20 years to 30.

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