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France passes new law on sexual harassment
Legislators introduce tougher law in the wake of incident within parliament of discriminatory conduct.
Last Modified: 31 Jul 2012 23:11

France's Socialist-dominated parliament has approved legislation that makes sexual harassment a crime.

The new law, which addresses problems many say have existed for decades in the country, was approved on Thursday by the National Assembly and sets three levels of harassment, with the most serious punishable by up to three years in prison.

Sexual harassment will entail cases where the harasser has authority over the victim, the victim is younger than 15 years old, or multiple people carry out the harassment.

The legislation covers offences in universities, the housing market and job interviews.

Single acts of sexual blackmail will be considered sexual harassment, whereas previously only repeated acts were.

In the US, sexual harassment is a civil offence usually punishable by fines.

Hooting and catcalls

The bill was drafted after Cecile Duflot, the country's housing minister, faced hooting and catcalls in the National Assembly when she stood up to deliver a speech on July 17, ostensibly because she was wearing a blue-and-white flowered dress.

The heckling came from male legislators, who later said they were merely showing their appreciation for her attire and that their conduct had not been equivalent to harassment.

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

None of the men who preceded her got the same treatment from the members of parliament, and the reaction was extraordinary enough to draw television commentary and headlines for days afterward.

That incident followed demonstrations in Paris in early May over an existing sexual harassment law that was struck down for being allegedly too vague and insufficient to protect women.

All the cases that were pending under the old law, which was struck down on May 4, have been thrown out. The absence of a law made it hard for new cases to be filed.

Under the old version of the law, it took 24 months for any judge to hear a sexual harassment complaint, according to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France's minister for women's rights who also helped in writing the new bill.

Fine and jail terms

Under the new law, offenders may pay a $36,816 fine in addition to jail terms.

"What is interesting with this new law is that nothing is left unpunished," Vallaud-Belkacem said.

"Words from the moment they're uttered can create this uneasy context of intimidation, of offence, [words] are punished as much as we punish the acts themselves. Because words can make people suffer too."

The Dominique Strauss-Kahn sex scandal last year brought new attention to this issue in France.

While not found guilty of sexual harassment or any other felony after being accused by a hotel chambermaid of rape, the former head of the International Monetary Fund brought issues of sex and power into the public debate.

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