Well I never, or ça par exemple, as our friends across the Channel say. The French government has announced that it is considering banning wolf-whistling under a new law, proposed by women’s minister Marlene Schiappa.
Under the suggested legislation, any man spotted whistling or being “aggressively lecherous” to women on the streets from Paris to Provence could be slapped with an on-the-spot fine. Finally: street harassers will be treated with the severity of someone riding the Overground without a valid Oyster card or ticket!
President Emmanuel Macron – who has previously said that he “[wants] to be recognised as a feminist by women” – has presented the ban as part of a broader effort to clamp down on sexist male behaviour in public places in France. Extra community police officers would be sent out to patrol the streets on the lookout for men behaving badly, Macron said, while a group of French MPs has been tasked with creating a definition of what constitutes harassment.
“At the moment street harassment is not defined in the law,” said Schiappa, according to The Telegraph. She added that the size of the fines hadn’t yet been decided – but added they wouldn’t be so high that offenders could refuse to pay.
Not for the first time, I admit to rather envying women in France. Not only do they have the legal right to ignore out-of-hours work emails, but they have a government prepared to take a legislative stand – a brave one, and one that’s guaranteed to get them livid, spit-shouting criticism by the bucketload – against misogyny. (Not to mention one that’s offering them an increase in community policing, an enterprise that has been stripped to its bare bones in the UK in recent years.)
If they do make street harassment a fineable offence, Macron, Schiappa and their colleagues are sending an important message. They’re acknowledging that some men, sadly, just won’t stop leering at women, or shouting at them or following them or groping them, unless there’s a chance they might actually suffer negative consequences. They’re telling these men that no, this behaviour isn’t ‘just a bit of fun’, and it will not be tolerated. And they’re saying to women: hey, you guys. We’ve got your back.
So, yes: vive la France! I’ll happily raise a glass to any government that’s prepared to walk the walk – aka introduce actual laws – when it comes to women’s safety. But before we start clamouring for Theresa May to take similar action in the UK (where 64% of women have experienced sexual harassment in public places), I think it’s important to acknowledge that bans or fines alone are not going to solve the problem.
For a start, there’s the issue of implementation. Some police unions and lawyers in France have criticised Schiappa’s bill, saying that it will be virtually impossible to enforce. Harassers would have to be caught red-handed in order to be fined – and officers would be required to make a snap judgement on whether the man in question was being threatening, or simply making a bad fist of flirting.
Schiappa has dismissed this critique, observing that women “know very well at what point we start feeling intimidated”: when a man “[talks] to you 10, 20 centimetres from your face”, for example, or follows you for several blocks, or “asks for your number 17 times”. True. But what happens when there just isn’t a policeman or woman around; when women are walking home late at night, or waiting for a bus on a quiet side street? Even the most well-funded police service in the world can’t promise an officer on every corner.
And when French women encounter men in these situations – which they will – they will be back to feeling as angry and frightened and powerless as they did before the fine was introduced. They’ll be back to feeling the cold leap of fear and lurch of disgust that comes after a stranger asks if you have a “nice pussy” at 9am on a Saturday morning (something that happened to me recently). They’ll be back to laughing weakly, so as not to antagonise the man following them, saying, “Hey, where are you going? I just want to be friends!” They’ll be back to threading their keys between their knuckles, just in case.
In addition, there’s already some evidence that tackling street harassment in this manner isn’t entirely effective. Nottinghamshire Police announced it would be recording misogynistic incidents, including street harassment, as hate crimes in July 2016, with the force’s chief constable Sue Fish saying the move would “make Nottinghamshire a safer place for women”.
The initiative received plenty of media attention and an overwhelmingly positive reception from women’s rights campaigners, but unfortunately that hasn’t translated into overt success. According to a recent investigation by feminist website Broadly, just 100 misogyny-related hate crimes had been dealt with by Nottinghamshire Police between April 2016 and April 2017 (the first year that incidents could be logged in this way).
That’s not nothing, but when you consider that 85% of young women in the UK say they have been harassed on the street – and more than a third of women of all ages have experienced unwanted touching in a public space – it’s clear that police efforts in Nottinghamshire aren’t getting to the heart of the issue.
Indeed, Sarah Green, co-director of End Violence Against Women, acknowledged that Nottinghamshire’s hate crime figures are “not at all the same as the actual level at which women experience harassment and abuse in the streets every day”.
If we’re serious about stamping out street harassment, it’s not enough to simply impose fines or bans from on high, or to suddenly class it as a different kind of crime. Those methods may cause the penny to finally drop for some men (‘Hmm… Maybe shouting “Nice tits!” at random women really isn’t the compliment I’ve always thought it was!’), and they might prompt others to moderate their behaviour for selfish reasons (because they don’t want to get apprehended by police). But they won’t work on their own.
Partly, this is because not every woman who experiences street harassment will feel comfortable reporting it to the police. Some simply won’t want to relive the incident all over again. Others may have had negative experiences of going to police in the past, something the Everyday Sexism Project’s Laura Bates has noted can be particularly pertinent for LGBTQ women and women of colour.
But it’s also because in order to truly eradicate street harassment, we need to attack it from every angle. We need sexual harassment to be treated with supreme seriousness in education, from primary school right up to university, and for teachers to be given adequate training in how to tackle it. According to a recent survey by GirlGuiding, 64% of girls aged 13-21 say they’ve been sexually harassed in school or college in the UK, and last year a Commons investigation found that teachers were routinely failing to address the problem. If boys aren’t being taught at school that catcalling, groping and lewd remarks aren’t acceptable, it’s hardly surprising that some grow into men who harass women on the street.
We also need men to start taking responsibility – for their own actions as well as the behaviour of their peers. No one gets a cookie for not being a creep; men need to call out harassment when they see it being perpetuated by other men, including their friends, and to think critically about how their conduct in public spaces might make women feel. One of the few positives of the Harvey Weinstein case is that it appears to be opening up conversations about harassment more broadly – and as women, we can keep those conversations going with the men in our lives (although, it should be stressed, it’s not women’s job to teach men how to behave appropriately).
So I hope that Schiappa’s anti-harassment bill is passed in France, if only to send a message to predatory men around the world that they’re perving on borrowed time. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it will be enough to stop men in their tracks. The problem goes far too deep for that – and to root it out will take much more work.
Images: Jessica Moore / iStock / Rex Features