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Are police equipped to deal with sexual harassment, or part of the problem?

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The French government claims its new measures aimed at tackling sexual harassment herald "deep social change". But activists say the legislation fails to tackle entrenched social attitudes and institutionalised sexism head-on.


“It was drizzling, it was cold, and the policeman at the gate wouldn’t let me in. I said, 'I’m here to report an assault.' He replied, 'OK, what happened?' I felt exposed and vulnerable discussing this out on the street under my umbrella."

In a story that echoes that of Marie Laguerre, whose assault on CCTV by a man who was harassing her went viral, FRANCE 24 journalist Catherine Bennettwas followed and verbally abused by a man. When she told him to stop he became violent. He hit her hard in the back of the head and she fell to the ground, where he kicked her several times. Feeling too fragile to face police straight away, she waited until the next morning.

Some of the police officers she spoke to were unsympathetic. “He said, ‘So why are you only coming to us now?’ ‘Well, it can’t have been that bad, where are your bruises?’ and ‘Did you go to hospital?’ I said no. ‘Well, it was just a minor attack, wasn’t it?’ I tried to insist on the fact that I wanted to go inside and speak to someone. I started crying because it was so shocking.”

>> Exclusive: Marie Laguerre on being harassed, assaulted in viral video

Bennett was told that the complaints department was closed that day and that she would have to try a different station. There, staff criticised the other officer’s actions and called him unprofessional: “He said, ‘That’s ridiculous, if someone has been assaulted, you take the complaint, you find another officer to do the job.'”

Bennett is not alone in having been discouraged from filing a complaint. The #Metoo movement and its French sister, #balancetonporc (Squeal on your pig), brought a spike in women reporting sexual harassment in France – but it also highlighted the fact that it is not always easy to do so.

'You’re going to ruin his life'

Several thousand women have recounted their experiences of sexism – or a lack of understanding of sexism and sexual assault – at the hands of the French police on the anonymous tumblr account Paye ta Police.

Testimony ranges from sexist comments made by officers (“Hello beautiful, want to get in the car?” “Well, don’t come complaining to us when you get raped with your whoreish lipstick.”) to officers pressuring women not to make an official complaint on conjugal rape (“You’re going to ruin his life the poor guy, it’s really not a big deal, think of your children.”) to questioning the victim’s word (“After 10 years of service, I’ve never seen a woman drugged and raped. You must have drunk too much.”).

The French government recently introduced on-the-spot fines to punish sexual harassment in public places, with the first fine levied on Tuesday. They are part of a series of measures backed by Minister for Gender Equality Marlène Schiappa and passed by parliament in recent months to combat sexual assault and harassment. But with these new measures, the role of judging what constitutes sexism and harassment in public is being placed squarely in police hands. Is France’s police force ready to be the deciding factor in when and how to enforce the new laws?

>> Read more: Can fines stop sexual harassment of women?

The government has promised to train 10,000 officers on identifying sexual harassment in public spaces, defined by the new legislation as “sexual or sexist conduct that is offensive to one's dignity because of its degrading or humiliating character, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive situation”.

According to the interior ministry, all French officers are already trained to be sensitive to violence against women during their initial training sessions. They also learn how to apply this knowledge in real-world contexts in classes and simulations, and may receive further training over the course of their careers.

However, French feminist organisations argue that the model currently in place isn’t enough to alter widespread sexist attitudes within the police ranks. Fed up with law enforcement dismissing their testimony as “isolated cases”, #payetapolice teamed up with the feminist movement Groupe F in April to try to quantify the phenomenon, calling for public testimonies over a 10-day period. They received 500 alleged accounts from across France from over the past five years.

A full 60 percent of the women said they were discouraged from filing a complaint. Another 52.9 percent said the police officer questioned the importance of their complaint while 41.6 percent said their claims were doubted or they were blamed for their own role in the incident. Another 21.2 percent said the officer took the side of the aggressor. Some 17.9 percent were mocked or subjected to sexist comments.

Screen grab, Le Group F

'Officers responded by laughing'

Last June, Fatima Benomar, an activist and spokesperson for feminist association Les Effronté-e-s, was sexually harassed and subjected to verbal abuse in central Paris in plain view of three policemen. Benomar says when she asked for their help, the three officers responded by laughing at the situation before taking the side of the harasser.

She took photos of the men and their vehicle and wrote apetitionaddressed to Minister Schiappa, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and the head of Paris’s gender equality office, Hélène Bidard, asking for the officers to be identified. She also called for relevant training to be put in place to confront these types of sexist attitudes. The officers, she said, were never disciplined.

More than a year later, the French government is heralding Schiappa’s legislation as marking a moment of “deep social change”. But key feminist activists are banding together to say they’re far from satisfied with its contents.

“All the associations are unanimous: There’s a lot of talk and not enough resources…,” Benomar told FRANCE 24. “When it comes to police training, they haven’t taken our calls into account. They say they’re making 10,000 officers available, which is very little in relation to street harassment across the whole country. Often what they call training – it’s not sending officers for a day or two-day course of seminars where they examine in detail what constitutes harassment. Often it’s just a case of sending out a PDF, and for them, the officers who have received the document are ‘trained’.”

“In order to grasp the concept of street harassment, what’s necessary is a global understanding on what is masculine domination, what is misogyny, what is sexism, how this is culturally constructed … otherwise, some will confuse harassment with flirtation,” she added.

As part of her work with Les Effronté-e-s, Benomar accompanies women when they report harassment, assault or rape to police. She said while the treatment they receive from police officers can be very good, in the majority of police stations it’s “appalling”.

“Sometimes they outright lie to discourage women from making a complaint. That’s why it’s so important women don’t go alone. I accompanied a student to report a rape, and at the reception, she was told that because she had waited a week, it was too late. I said this was nonsense. We were seen, and the next person warned her that her rapist, a classmate, was certain not to be convicted, so she shouldn’t abandon her studies. He told her straight off that she’s going to lose her case, so she began to cry.”

“The worst part [was that] she agreed to a confrontation, and the officer in charge left the room to use the photocopier – leaving her alone with her rapist.”

>> Deneuve’s #MeToo pushback triggers debate in France and beyond

Benomar expressed some understanding for the difficult situations police officers might find themselves in. “The officers filing these complaints are overworked, and I think often in their minds there are more important thing to deal with – [for example] drugs, weapons. And a young student who has been raped by a classmate she went to a party with, their reaction is, ‘Why is she bothering us with this?’”

But her organisation and others like it could be called in to help, she said, if the government committed the necessary resources.

“We’re calling for a representative from a support organisation like ours to be paid by the state to assist at each and every police station. We’re completely run by volunteers, and we don’t always have someone available to help.”

Voices from within the police are saying the new fines for harassment will be a struggle to enforce. Speaking to FRANCE 24, Alexandre Langlois of France’s CGT police union described them as a “publicity stunt” that will be “almost impossible to apply”on the ground.

But Benomar’s main concern is not a lack of enforcement but rather a misuse of the new rules.

“Many elements seen as street harassment are already classed as crimes carrying considerable sentences,” she said. “If a man calls a woman a whore, this is an offence that carries a six-month sentence, molesting someone carries up to a five-year sentence and a 75,000 euro fine.”

Benomar cites what happened to Laguerre, saying that while it was street harassment, more importantly it was verbal abuse and physical assault.

“If there’s not sufficient training, there’s going to be a very haphazard application of this law, which could devalue more serious crimes.”

An awareness campaign (Arrêtons-les or Let's stop them) that Schiappa's ministry launched last year warned of the risks of imprisonment and fines for such acts as kissing or fondling strangers and verbal harassment.

Screen grab, gender equality ministry website

Changing mentalities

Laguerre has used the media attention brought by her experience to call for the government to invest more in training and education.

“The men that harass women on the street, they have jobs, they’re perfectly integrated in society – the police included – and that’s even more serious, because they’re supposed to be there to protect us,” Laguerre told FRANCE 24. “Of course they’re not all like this, I was very well looked after ... and I’m lucky because I have the video; others only have their word.”

“For me, the only way to get rid of this behaviour is by changing mentalities, in educating from a young age, and in training all those with a part to play.”

Since being thrust into the public eye, Laguerre has received multiple hate messages accusing her of lying and criticising her physical appearance, a selection of which she has published on social mediaas further proof of the challenges the government faces in fulfilling President Emmanuel Macron’s campaign promise of making gender equality the “great cause” of his presidency.

>> Suspect in viral assault on Paris woman appears in court

Later this month Schiappa’s office will announce details on its latest national awareness campaign, with a focus on the role of witnesses of harassment, and the launch of a new platform aimed at helping guide victims in making a complaint.

For Bennett,there’s still a long way to go in tackling attitudes that are profoundly entrenchedin French society. She describes a range of harassment not just from passersby but from public service workers including firemen, public transport workers and bin men.

“I don’t feel comfortable trusting people who work for Paris authorities because I think it’s just so embedded in their psyche. In the culture here, it’s just so inherent to them that, despite whatever position they may hold, it doesn’t occur to them that what they’re doing is inappropriate. I think that sexual harassment is rife in this country.”

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