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

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

A member of activist group La Barbe onstage at a recent event.
A member of activist group La Barbe onstage at a recent event. Photograph: Getty Images

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.