Sex harassment law to be fast-tracked


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The Independent Online

The French parliament will push through emergency legislation to protect women from sexual harassment this week – just days after a female minister was subjected to cat-calls by right wing members for wearing a summer dress.

The two events are not connected but their proximity illustrates the difficulty of establishing women's rights in a country where macho attitudes are still common. The Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair suggests the problem may not not limited to politicians of the Right.

The emergency legislation will replace a ten-year-old law struck down in May by France's constitutional watchdog, the Conseil Constitutionnel, for being too vague. Under the replacement law, men could face up to three years in prison for sexually harassing women who are their juniors at work.

The new centre-left majority in the national assembly is expected to pass the legislation before the summer break starts next week. Many right-wing members will vote against or abstain.

Last week, the housing minister, Cécile Duflot, was subjected to prolonged hooting and jeers by centre-right members of the assembly when she tried to give a speech on another subject in a blue and white summery dress. The right wing members later insisted that they were "showing their appreciation".

Since the old harassment law was declared unconstitutional in May, scores of cases have been frozen or thrown out. Some of them had been winding their way through the French legal system for six years.

The new legislation, based on European law, will cover offences in the work-place, in universities, in the housing market and in job interviews. There will be three categories of penalties, starting with a maximum one-year jail sentence for repeated gestures or sexually suggestive actions. The most severe punishment, a three-year sentence, would apply if the victim is in a subordinate position or younger than 15.

Cécile Duflot, former leader of the Green party in France, said she had been depressed, rather than distressed, by the right wing members' reaction to her dress. "I once worked in the building and construction industry and I never saw anything like that," she said in a radio interview. "It tells you something about certain members of parliament. I feel sorry for their wives."