France gets tough with sexual harassment and sexist adverts on its public transport networks

Behaviour once seen as harmless, such as salacious remarks, is now punishable with a fine

The French government has unveiled a series of measures to combat sexual harassment on public transport, while saying it will “fight” against sexist adverts on the network.

The Minister for Women’s Rights Pascale Boistard, together with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and the Transport Minister Alain Vidalies, announced a plan containing 12 points – including a new text alert system to report incidents more rapidly.

Speaking at Paris’s busy Gare du Nord station, Ms Boistard said harassment “begins with… salacious remarks, a hand on a behind… It is also a much more serious aggression that goes as far as rape.

“These acts are not harmless… They are punishable by law,” she added, before revealing a poster campaign would be launched to tell would-be offenders they could expect a five-year prison sentence or a fine of up to €75,000.

The same posters, to be introduced later this year, will urge bystanders to intervene to protect potential victims.

The announcement follows a report in April by the equality watchdog the Haut conseil à l’égalité entre les femmes et les hommes, that found that every single female respondent had been a victim of sexual harassment on public transport.

Ernestine Ronai, the co-president of the department that produced the report, said the majority of the women asked didn’t know what they were experiencing constituted an offence.

Speaking to The Independent, she said: “The biggest problem is the trivialisation of this kind of act: ‘It’s just a slap on the bum, it’s not that important.’ We need to call things by their proper name.”

Ms Ronai praised the ministers’ call for the public to act when they see someone being harassed: “For too long when a woman tells an offender to stop what he’s doing, those around her look at her as if she is the guilty one”.

Women’s rights groups also welcomed the emphasis on offenders.

A poster campaign launched in 2011 by the state rail service aimed at combating antisocial behaviour – which featured humans with animal heads behaving badly, has been criticised by some for not including sexual harassment.

The organisation Stop harcèlement de rue (Stop harassment on the streets) parodied it in social media, with a picture of half-man, half-crocodile, “annoying Mr Croc”, rubbing up against a woman on the metro. Its chief Alice Barbe said “being groped on the underground is so commonplace women talk about it in the same way they would talk about what they have for breakfast”.

“Girls start experiencing harassment on the way to school and it’s ignored, so by the time they are adults it has become normalised,” she said.

Proposals put forward include a pilot scheme in Nantes, a town in the west of France, allowing passengers to stop the bus on demand to be as close to home as possible.

A new text alert service will be opened to help victims report an offence more quickly and staff will participate in training courses teaching them to respond with more empathy.

The three ministers invited women to take part in “participative walks” around metro stations to identify blind spots and insecure areas, making recommendations on CCTV, better lighting and security provisions. 

The walls of stations are also set to become a battleground: Ms Boistard said the government would “fight against the diffusion of sexist messages” in adverts.

Speaking to RMC radio later in the day, Ms Boistard criticised a campaign for the department store Galeries Lafayette.

Galeries Lafayette’s poster, which shows a naked woman dangling her bikini bottoms from her toe under the words “let summer live more”, has been condemned by women’s rights groups across France. “Its not a question of morals but of respect”, Ms Boistard said. “You can’t sell a bikini when the bottoms aren’t even on the model”.

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