Walking down French streets could soon be much safer for women. A proposed law that will be voted on next year would officially outlaw street harassment in France and fine men on the spot. Marlène Schiappa, the country's minister of state for gender equality, proposed the measure, which would penalize men for so much as whistling at women walking by.
Harassment laws are useless if they aren't properly enforced. Holly Kearl, founder of the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, tells Bustle it's "unclear from the other places that have passed laws [just] how effective passing a law will be." But Schiappa has said new legislation is needed because street harassment isn't currently defined by law, meaning women have no legal recourse when they're made to feel unsafe.
She used examples of men following women for several blocks or repeatedly asking for their phone number to help explain what would qualify as harassment if the proposal becomes law. "We know very well at what point we start feeling intimidated, unsafe or harassed in the street," she said.
It's an issue Schiappa cares about personally because, like most women and femme-presenting people, she's experienced street harassment firsthand. She told NPR she was frequently catcalled at a young age as she and her sister would walk home from school (or anywhere, really). "We took alternative routes, out of our way," she said, "to avoid the bands of boys."
Countries such as Portugal have already made street harassment and catcalling illegal. In the U.S., it varies state to state. New York's harassment law, for example, dictates that making "alarming, seriously annoying, or threatening comments" to someone on the street at least twice is punishable by a $250 fine or up to 15 days in jail.
However, when it comes to enforcement, it's can be easy for some men to simply pay a fine and move on if they can afford it. Kearl would prefer to see longer-term solutions, such as including some type of educational component in the punishment for those found guilty of street harassment. "I think that's taking a proactive step to prevent it in the future," she says.
Because the French legislation is still being workshopped, the details (including how much men would be fined) haven't been finalized. French politicians will begin working with the police and judges to determine what actions will legally be classified as sexual harassment before its brought to a vote.
The law will also go beyond punishing catcallers, establishing stricter rules around having sex with minors and lengthening the amount of time people who were sexually assaulted as children have to report their abuse to the police.
France has been grappling with the same gendered issues as America recently — when Hollywood tycoon Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual harassment and assault by dozens of women, it caught French politicians' attention, as well. In fact, French President Emmanuel Macron took the nation's Legion D'Honneur award away from Weinstein (he was also expelled from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences).
Not long after, the #MeToo campaign that took off in the U.S. also encouraged French women to share their personal stories about being sexually harassed or assaulted. French woman began using #balancetonporc, which has been translated to both "squeal on your pig" or "rat on your dirty old man."
The country is taking steps to disavow accused rapists and ensure women feel safe walking down the street. There's always more work to be done, but that's where Schiappa comes in. She's dedicated to making public spaces within France safe for everyone, beginning with banning all forms of street harassment.
As Schiappa told La Croix newspaper, "The idea is that society as a whole redefines what it is acceptable or not."
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.