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
Getty
Show Hide image

Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.