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France to vote on new sexual harassment bill
Legislators to decide on stronger law in aftermath of incident within parliament itself of discriminatory conduct.
Last Modified: 31 Jul 2012 11:33

French parliamentarians are due to vote on a new sexual harassment bill, in the wake of complaints within the body itself of discriminatory conduct.

The bill, to be voted on by legislators on Tuesday, 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 that 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.

Previous law

The incident came as French citizens had held demonstrations in Paris in early May, protesting after an existing sexual harassment law 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. Without a new law, no new cases can be filed.

Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France's minister for women's rights, helped write the new bill.

Under the old version of the law, it takes 24 months for any judge to hear a sexual harassment complaint, she said, so any cases brought even as soon as it is passed will take two years to see a courtroom.

Under the new proposal, she says that sexual harassment will be a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years in prison and a $36,816 fine.

"What is interesting with this new law is that nothing is left unpunished," she 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 in that case, his encounter with a New York City hotel maid brought issues of sex and power into the public debate.

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