After #MeToo backlash, French law cracks down on sexism, harassment

Stéphane de Sakutin, AFP | A woman holds the two different front pages of the March 8 edition of French daily paper Libération, which charged men 25 percent more that day to highlight gender pay inequality.

As the world marked International Women’s Day this week, France unveiled measures designed to fight gender inequality. Is the country that saw a high-profile celebrity backlash against the #MeToo movement now leading the charge against sexism?


Many see France as suffering from entrenched sexism – among them President Emmanuel Macron, who notably declared in November that his country was “sick with sexism”. He has labelled the push for gender equality a “great cause” of his presidency.

The vast #MeToo movement that began in the US and the UK also found a home in France, where it was repurposed as #BalanceTonPorc. However, the movement hit a snag when 100 prominent French women, including celebrities such as Catherine Deneuve, signed an open letter in January that poured scorn on the movement, accusing it of inciting “hatred of men and sex”.

"Good news for France's influence abroad..." says the editor of French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique in a sarcastic tweet.

But in the wake of what many considered an embarrassing step back for French feminism, Macron’s government has proposed ambitious legislation to crack down on sexism in education, in the workplace and in everyday life.

Fines for catcalling

Last Thursday on International Women’s Day, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and gender equality Minister Marlène Schiappa unveiled a series of policies designed to promote equality between the sexes. One proposition that has provoked scepticism was the introduction of on-the-spot fines for street harassment. Sexual harassment in public places (including obscene comments and gestures, catcalling and whistling) will now be punished by a €90 fine – which could rise to as much as €750, depending on how quickly the perpetrator pays up.

Schiappa spoke to FRANCE 24 last week about the new anti-harassment law. “It’s a cultural problem,” she explained. “Some things have been accepted for years, for generations. People have thought, ‘Oh well, that’s just the way it is, boys will be boys.’ These things were accepted – but they are not accepted anymore. And I think this is the role of the law. We do not tolerate seeing women harassed or threatened in the street or on public transportation.”

A similar law is already in place in other European countries. In Belgium and Portugal, harassers pay a fine or risk a one-year prison sentence. On-the-spot fines also exist in Finland, but the law only applies to physical and not verbal harassment.

Anti-harassment campaign on transport

Prime Minister Philippe vowed that the government's new measures would help guarantee the safety of women in public spaces. Alongside his announcement, Paris’s regional public transport operator RATP also chose this week to launch an advertising campaign to raise awareness of sexual harassment on public transport and to encourage people to report it. The National Federation of Transport Users says as many as nine out of ten French women say they have been harassed on public transport.

“Don’t minimise sexual harassment. Whether [you are] a victim or a witness, report it!” the new posters read, while providing information on how to report such incidents.


The campaign was swiftly panned, however, as it depicted women being accosted not by men but by wild animals. Critics said that it avoided targeting the real aggressors, i.e., men.

Politiqu’elles, a French women’s rights organisation, said the campaign also failed to highlight how pervasive harassment is. “Featuring men would have been an occasion to show that the culprits of such assaults are very ordinary-looking,” it said in a statement.

Pay gap penalties

Macron’s government is also cracking down on gender pay gaps in the workplace, and in this respect, France is following the example of Iceland. In January, Iceland became the first country to legally enforce equal pay. Starting in 2022, France will impose similar legislation that calls on businesses with more than 50 employees to face fines if they have unexplained salary differences between male and female employees.

"We will put in place a 'name and shame' system to make public those companies that least respect the law," Macron announced on Thursday, adding: "No one wants to be bottom of the class on this issue."

In rankings by the World Economic Forum released last year, France came in 11th place out of 144 countries for gender equality – but in only 129th place for wage equality for comparable work.

Ministers are also pushing for the use of software at large businesses that would allow them to automatically identify a gender pay gap within a company and extract immediate compensation.

An attempt in the UK, on the other hand, to combat deep-rooted pay inequalities hasn’t met much success. A requirement for large businesses to publish pay gap data passed into law in the UK in April 2017. However, with just over two weeks before the March 30 deadline, only 20 percent of the 9,000 organisations in the UK bound by the law have published their information – and of those that have, the results show a landscape of double-digit pay differences between men and women.

France's proposed laws also aim to help women climb the corporate ladder. The government wants the country’s digital sector to employ more women and is setting up a nationwide mentorship network so that women in positions of authority can mentor and support other female workers.

The new legislation will also focus on gender parity in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers – and will start early by encouraging female students to choose scientific subjects at school and university. The goal is to have 40 percent of female students in science-related subjects by 2020.

Helping domestic violence victims

The French government published statistics on the occasion of International Women’s Day revealing that 62,000 women were the victims of rape or attempted rape in 2016 and that one woman dies every three days from domestic violence. Philippe announced that 5,000 extra places in shelters would be made available for women who are victims of domestic violence and that more funding would be put towards a monitoring service that would also allow women to immediately notify a professional about domestic violence via an instant messaging service.

This is in sharp contrast to the UK, where local authorities have cut spending on women’s refuges by nearly a quarter since 2010, as well as Italy, where there are only 500 available spaces in domestic violence shelters compared to the 5,700 needed. Poland's government has also declined or withdrawn funding for women’s rights and domestic violence organisations. France's reforms thus place it squarely ahead of many other European countries when it comes to protecting victims of domestic violence.

However, feminist organisations have remained sceptical of the efficacy of such reforms – even if they promote the right ideas. Marie-Noëlle Bas, the president of feminist organisation Chiennes de Garde (Guard Dogs), told FRANCE 24 that while these measures show that France is going in the right direction, the government doesn’t actually have the budget to follow through on its promises.

“I don’t think this heralds a great change in policy,” she said. “Macron is simply walking in the footsteps of his predecessor. They need money for these laws. It remains to be seen if he can actually implement them.”

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