How France’s sexual harassment law took a five-week hiatus

The suspension of the old law created a "dangerous void".

On 4th May of this year, France dropped its existing sexual harassment law. Yesterday, on 12th July the French Senate voted unanimously in favour of the new legal text on harassment. No, there’s no evidence of a spike in opportunist pestering and molesting in the period between the old law being dropped and the creation of the new law. Still, as busy as the French political system was with the transition to Hollande’s Presidency and the inauguration of the new Parliament, the question remains: how, exactly, did the legal right to not be harassed manage to go on a five-week holiday in France?

The issue began in the dying days of Sarkozy’s Presidency when the sexual harassment law, enacted in 1992 but modified in 2002 to broaden its meaning, was increasingly criticised and challenged in the courts for being insufficient – the 2002 legislation defined sexual harassment as “the act of harassing others to gain sexual favours”, a problematic and confusing definition (much sexual harassment and intimidation can take place without the harasser explicitly seeking sex from the victim, for instance) that France’s constitutional council declared the existing legislation inadequate, leading to its immediate suspension. As the National Assembly, who write the law, were elected in June, the transition-period left the old law suspended but the new law yet to be written.

Feminist groups in France had been arguing that the law was nearly useless, and being inappropriately used to downgrade crimes such as rape and sexual assaults: in this sense the new 2012 law, which presents three new tiers of protection for victims, is a clear improvement. Still, this eventual benefit was marred by the immediate concern of the legal purgatory the constitutional council’s suspension of the old law created, and women’s groups took to the streets to protest this oversight.

Because for all the dubious jokes about the interim period being a brief window of opportunity for the office letch, there were serious consequences to the legal hiatus: with no recourse to legal tools to prosecute, all ongoing harassment cases were dropped, including for sexual assault.  The highly imperfect temporary solution was for victims’ lawyers to look for other grounds for prosecution.  The new minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, has since condemned the interim period as a “dangerous void” and made facilitating the new law’s passage her one of her first ministerial priorities.

Vallaud-Belkacem’s commitment is sorely needed after France’s recent international shame on sexual politics.  2011will forever go down as the annus horribilis of gender issues (or just the year of Are You Serious, Misogynists?) in France: on top of the Strauss-Kahn trial itself, the domestic media’s mishandling of “affaire DSK” increased global scrutiny of the country’s glaring gender inequities, while the Socialist Party (PS) primaries brought an unhappy reminder of the flagrantly misogynistic treatment of PS candidate Segolene Royal in 2007.  Little wonder that, by the end of 2011, protest group La Barbe were making international headlines for donning beards and damning the entrenched sexism in French society and politics.

With a new Presidency and Parliament, 2012 looks set to capitalise on the renewed concern for gender issues ignited by the DSK events, as the appointment of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem – who has a brief to address harassment and sexism as well as reverse the Sarkozy-era encroachments on women’s benefits – seems to indicate.  Hollande’s appointment of equal numbers of male and female ministers to his cabinet, while not in itself a guarantee that the government’s legislation will advance women’s rights, certainly signalled a recognition of the need to redress the gender-gap.   Hollande and the Minister of Justice have since echoed the Women’s Rights Minister’s assertion that combatting sexism will remain a priority.  As Vallaud-Belkacem said in a recent Guardian interview: "everything will be looked at through the prism of gender equality. If we see an imbalance, we will readjust it.”

The “dangerous void” left by the repeal of the sexual harassment law was a less than ideal start to a new era but one which, thankfully, appears to be being addressed promptly by Vallaud-Belkace. With a new Women’s Rights Minister and a gender-equal cabinet, the country now has a chance to recover from the sexist-nadir that was 2011. For your political elite to be roundly condemned as misogynist might be regarded as misfortune; misplacing your sexual harassment legislation begins to look like carelessness. Here’s hoping women’s rights in France continue to improve from this point.


A member of activist group La Barbe onstage at a recent event. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.