Unfortunately, sexual harassment of women in public spaces is nothing new in France, just as it is in other parts of the world. A French amateur survey on Google Forms, which has gathered over 5,000 responses since it was created in 2013, shows that 94% of respondents say they have been a victim of physical or verbal street harassment. With regards to the frequency of harassment, 32% replied: ‘at least once a week’.
Another study carried out by the Thomson Reuters foundation in 2014, revealed that 85% of women in Paris “have little faith” that anyone would come to their aide if they were assaulted on the metro. A different study found 41% of women in Paris claim to have been subjected to physical violence (a pinch on the bottom, a grope, or even rape).
However, various France-based organisations such as Projet Crocodile (The Crocodile Project), Paye Ta Shneck (Pay Your Squeeze) and Stop Harcèlement de Rue (Stop Street Harassment) are all fighting to raise awareness of street harassment and educate the public on why it is unacceptable in the hopes of eradicating it forever.
They also provide strategies for those who witness or experience such acts. One such technique is to create a diversion, as illustrated by Vincent Lahouze, an artist based in Paris, France. He recounted on his blog how he ended a potentially dangerous situation of harassment in the Parisian metro:
La jeune femme avait le visage tourné vers la vitre, elle semblait tétanisée. Je me suis approché encore, pour écouter ce que l’homme lui disait, collé à elle. (Toi j’vais te baiser tu sais oh oui j’vais te baiser salement et tu vas aimer ça hein bien sûr que tu vas aimer ça mmh allez t’écoutes ce que j’dis petite pute réponds petite salope j’sais que tu en as envie je l’ai vu dans ton regard de petite chienne en chaleur fallait pas porter une jupe si t’es pas intéressée ouais toi j’vais te baiser…) La jeune femme ne disait rien, le regard fixé sur son reflet, sans sourire, pétrifiée. [..] C’est fou comme la peur nous paralyse dans ces moments-là, vraiment.
Mais je me suis assis à côté d’eux et tout en croisant le regard de la jeune femme, je lui ai dit, Hey Camille! Ça faisait un bail que je ne t’avais pas vue! Comment ça va, ma cousine? puis me tournant vers l’homme, avec un grand sourire, je ne vous dérange pas, j’espère? Ces quelques mots ont suffit à la jeune femme pour reprendre vie, et comprenant ce que je tentais de faire m’a suivi dans ma brève comédie familiale. L’homme a immédiatement retiré sa main, comme si les fils de sa marionnette venaient de se couper, comme s’il venait de se brûler au contact de la peau de la jeune femme. Sans un regard, il s’est levé, et il est sorti de la rame sans se retourner.
The young woman had her face turned to the window, she seemed petrified. I approached closer, to hear what the man was saying to her in her ear, while pinning her in her corner. He whispered to her: ‘I'm going to take you good, you know, I'm going to have you hard and you're going to love it. Of course, you're going to love it …listen to what I'm saying, you little b*tch, answer me, you little whore, I know you want it, I saw it in your little slut face…You shouldn't wear a skirt if you're not up for it, yeah you, I'm going to take you…’ The young woman said nothing, her gaze fixed on her reflection, frozen, paralyzed with fear. […] It's crazy how fear can paralyse us in moments like this.
I sat down next to them and, catching the young women's eye, I said to her, ‘Hey Camille! I haven't seen you for ages! How's it going, cousin?’ then, turning towards the man with a big smile, ‘I'm not bothering you, I hope?’ These few words were enough to bring the young woman back to life and, understanding what I was trying to do, she played along with my brief family reunion make-believe. The man retracted his hand immediately, as if his puppet strings had just been cut, as if he had just burnt himself on the young woman's skin. He got up and left the carriage without so much as a look back.
Below is a poster from Stop Harcèlement de Rue which explains how to react if harassed:
Stop Harcèlement de Rue encourages people to speak up if they see their friends or strangers harassing someone. The organisation also released a mobile app last year called Hé! (Hey!) which simulates street harassment for anyone who has never experienced it personally.
In 2015, the government introduced a plan to combat sexist violence in the street. An awareness campaign was launched to promote “a free conversation on the subject of street harassment”, including video advertisements such as this one (with English subtitles):
In an interview with newspaper Le Figaro in March 2015, Secretary of State for Women's Rights Pascale Boistard explained why the government introduced the plan:
Il faut que chacun sache comment réagir face à des situations inacceptables. Nous réfléchissons également à la façon dont de nouvelles technologies peuvent permettre aux voyageurs importunés comme aux témoins de prévenir les forces de l'ordre de façon discrète, comme avec un SMS ou via une application dédiée. Mais le plus important, à mes yeux, est de faire prendre conscience aux femmes de leurs droits.
Everyone should know how to react when faced with an unacceptable situation. We also consider the ways in which new technologies can allow both hassled travellers and witnesses alike to alert the police in a discreet manner, for example by text or via a dedicated application. But the most important, in my eyes, is to make women more aware of their rights.