France debates new harassment law

The hooting and catcalls began as soon as the Cabinet minister stood, wearing a blue and white flowered dress. It did not cease for the entire time she spoke before France's National Assembly. And the heckling came not from an unruly crowd, but from male legislators who later said they were merely showing their appreciation on a warm summer's day.

Cecile Duflot, the Housing minister, faltered very slightly, and then continued with her prepared remarks about an urban development project in Paris.

"Ladies and gentlemen, but mostly gentlemen, obviously," she said in a firm voice as hoots rang out. She completed the statement on her ministry and again sat down. None of the men in suits who preceded her got the same treatment from the deputies, and the reaction was extraordinary enough to draw television commentary and headlines for days afterward.

The same French Assembly on Tuesday took up a new law on sexual harassment, more than two months after a court struck down the previous statute, saying it was too vague and failed to protect women. In the meantime, there has been nothing. All cases that were pending when the law was struck down May 4 were thrown out. And, without a law, there can be no new cases.

The government, keenly aware of the lack of protection since the May 4 court decision, has pressed for a quick vote. It has already passed the Senate. The two versions will ultimately have to be reconciled before a final vote next week.

"The more we delay the law's passage, the longer we delay ... this incredible insecurity, this incredible lack of protection for victims of sexual harassment." said Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France's minister for women's rights, who helped write the law. It takes 24 months for any judge to hear a sexual harassment complaint under the law, she said, so any cases brought even as soon as it is passed will take two years to see a courtroom.

"Women are very, very, very harassed and they don't dare say it," said Helene Reboisson, a former jeweler who said she supported the law. "Men have the power. It will take several years for us women."

Under the new proposal, sexual harassment will be a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison. In the United States, it's a civil offense usually punishable by fines.

"Women will no longer be without protection, that's the most important thing," said Asma Guenifi, president of the feminist group Neither Prostitutes nor Doormats. But Guenifi said she had reservations about the replacement law, primarily its maximum punishment of three years in prison and the three escalating categories of harassment.

"My fear today is that this new law won't be clear enough, protective enough or global enough," Guenifi said.

The new legislation will extend to cover offenses in universities, in the housing market and job interviews, and is intended to punish single acts of sexual blackmail as sexual harassment - previously only covering repeated acts.

But in a culture where hissing at women on the street is considered a sign of approval and sexual banter is often a workplace norm, Guenifi said the law could be a hard sell for women under pressure to keep their jobs in a difficult economy. Especially coming from the same group of lawmakers who last week disrupted a normally routine presentation from government ministers.

Guenifi said the reaction to Duflot in the July 17 Assembly session was disappointing, but unsurprising.

"We knew that sexism and machismo touches all socioeconomic classes, but it's very sad because everyone can identify with it, saying, `Even there they don't respect women,"' she said.

Duflot - who came under criticism after wearing jeans to her first Cabinet meeting this year - said she was shocked at the reaction last week in the Assembly, which came from scattered male deputies. The Assembly has 153 women out of 577 deputies.

It's not entirely clear what prompted it - women routinely go before the legislators without heckling, though most dress more conservatively. But in 1972 the deputy Michele Alliot-Marie received a similar reception after entering the Assembly in trousers, according to Le Figaro.

"I worked in the building and construction sector, and I never saw that. It says something about certain deputies. It means something about certain deputies. I think about their wives. I think about all the men who aren't like that," Duflot said later in an interview with the French television network RTL. The Assembly is notoriously macho, despite increasing numbers of female deputies, but presentations by the Cabinet are usually respectful affairs.

One of the male deputies was unrepentant, denying the outburst was intended to be offensive: "We weren't booing or whistling at Cecile Duflot. We were admiring," Patrick Balkany, of the conservative opposition UMP, told the newspaper Figaro. "It's possible to look at a woman with interest without it being machismo."

Balkany suggested Duflot wore the boldly printed - but otherwise chaste-looking - dress "so that we wouldn't listen to what she has to say."

Another deputy, Jacques Myard, told L'Express that the hoots were a way of "paying homage to this woman's beauty."

A female UMP deputy was more perturbed by the outburst.

"It's a way of not taking women's voices into consideration, to deny your work or your role," Francoise de Panafieu, whose mother Helene Missoffe was a junior minister in the 1970s as well as an Assembly deputy. "Since my mother, the place of women in politics has not budged."

The new sexual harassment law is supposed to address problems in France that many say have been going on for as long as women have been a big part of the workforce. It sets three levels of harassment, with the most serious punishable by three years in prison. Among the circumstances that merit the most severe punishment: if the harasser has authority over the victim, if the victim is younger than 15, or if multiple people carry out the harassment.

Vanessa Bernard, a university student in Paris, said she hoped the law would address the intimidation that many French women feel when faced with harassment. In France, she said, "a woman is considered more like an object."

Guenifi listed acts that would draw the most lenient, one-year punishment, including repeated gestures, discourse, or other sexually suggestive actions intended to create a hostile or intimidating environment.

"All that, and one year of prison?" she asked. "It's scandalous, truly scandalous."

Vallaud-Belkacem acknowledged a vast disparity in sentencing for theft, which can draw a sentence of up to four years, and said the quick timetable meant that broader issues of justice might have to wait.

"You don't have time to deal with that sort of thing when you're facing as urgent a situation as we are with sexual harassment."