French lawmakers approve tough sex harassment law

As old sexual scandals implicating former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn continue to haunt his native France, French lawmakers have approved a tough new sexual harassment law.

French government figures offer cause for alarm. Out of hundreds of sexual harassment complaints filed in France every year, only about 80 resulted in sentences under France’s old sexual harassment law.

In May, the country’s constitutional court tossed out that law on grounds that it was too vague. Two months later, both France’s senate and national assembly have passed a replacement that will make sexual harassment a criminal offense.

Culprits face prison sentences of up to two or three years and hefty fines, penalties that are essentially double those under the old law. Potentially offensive behavior can include sexual jokes, neck massages and leaving pornographic material on office desks.

A number of groups have praised the new legislation. But Mary Heloise, a jurist at the women’s rights group Ni Putes Ni Soumises — French for “neither prostitutes nor doormats” — says it does not go far enough.

Ms. Heloise says the toughest penalties are only for extreme cases. Generally, she claims, people who steal mobile phones face harsher penalties than sexual harassment offenders.

Critics say France is fertile territory when it comes to sexual harassment.

Consider the reaction by male lawmakers earlier this month when Cecile Duflot, the housing minister, addressed them wearing a blue and white flowered dress. The hooting and catcalls have since sparked plenty of debate about machoism in French society, including in the parliament which is dominated by men.

Jurist Heloise says it clearly shows the lawmakers need to curb behavior that is clearly sexist.

The new legislation is unrelated to the sex scandals dogging Strauss-Kahn. But they have sparked much soul searching in France about sexual harassment in the workplace and, some say, a new awakening to women’s rights in France.

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