French minister: Fighting gender violence ‘the top priority’

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Fighting violence against women isn’t just a top priority for French President Emmanuel Macron — it’s the top priority, his gender equality minister said Wednesday. And one of the first targets is street harassment.

In an interview, Marlene Schiappa said legislation that she will present to the Cabinet next week would impose stiff fines for gender-based harassment on the street or in public transport. She said the bill is important in both a practical and a symbolic sense.

“It is symbolic because we have to lead that cultural fight,” Schiappa said at the United Nations, where a day earlier she addressed the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women. “We have to say: ‘Young men, you don’t have the right — you’re not allowed to follow women on the streets, to intimidate them.'”

But she also believes the law can be effectively implemented, adding that the country’s interior minister, Gerard Collomb, is planning to use 10,000 policemen and policewomen to help in the fight. Fines would start at 200 euros, and could go higher if not paid right away, she said. In some cases there also would be a training session at which a violator “will learn many things about street harassment and why you don’t have the right to do that to a woman.”

The proposed law also includes a provision that anyone under 15 cannot consent to sex with an adult. And it extends the statute of limitations on sex crimes, allowing prosecution for 30 years after a purported victim turns 18, rather than 20.

Schiappa said she hopes there will be “quite a consensus” in support of the law in parliament. “I think it’s an important subject that deserves to (stay) out of the usual fight between political groups,” she said. “But we will see.”

Schiappa has become one of the most outspoken members of Macron’s government. In her speech Tuesday at the commission’s meeting, she declared that 2017 marked “the end of global denial on gender-based and sexual violence.” She said 2018 should not be just the end of an era, but the beginning of another: “Year One after #MeToo.”

She said one of the most important elements of #MeToo — France has its own version called “Balance Ton Porc” — is that people are not only speaking differently about gender violence, but finally listening.

“Women have talked about that for many generations,” Schiappa said. “My mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother talked with me about gender-based violence that they experienced or witnessed. They all have stories to tell.”

She said that for a long time, women with such stories would hear a dismissive, “C’est la vie,” or be told they just had to deal with it alone. But now after #MeToo, she said, “no one will be able to say to a woman: ‘You have to deal with it.'”

Schiappa said she disagreed strongly with the much-discussed letter written by actress Catherine Deneuve and some 100 other French artists and academics in January saying that the “legitimate protest against sexual violence” stemming from the Harvey Weinstein scandal had gone too far and advocating against “puritanism.”

“I think it’s not about morality, about puritanism at all,” the minister said. “It is about freedom, about how women can … live peacefully in freedom, to walk on the street, to go to work, to share spaces with men in freedom and (have) a sexual life if they want to — but only if they want to.”

Schiappa also addressed her goal of correcting the gender wage gap in France, noting that the first law aiming to address it was passed in 1983, when she was only 6 months old. “I am now 35 and it is still not being implemented,” she said.

The government is proposing to “name and shame” companies not respecting the law on gender equality in the workplace. “It’s not enough,” Schiappa said, “but in terms of the gender pay gap, nothing is enough … ‘name and shame’ is about that cultural fight. It’s about changing mentalities and saying it’s not acceptable that you pay women less than men.”

The most immediate goal is getting her proposed law passed by parliament, Schiappa said.

“We’ve been working for years now to make that law,” she said. “President Macron said gender equality would be his top goal before Weinstein, before #MeToo, before the election … really, that law will be important.”

Macron’s government has chosen to label associations fighting violence against women as a “great national cause” this year, which means they can broadcast messages on TV and radio for free and get help from the state to organize charity campaigns.

Schiappa was also asked about gender parity in the president’s own circle of advisers and staff, which includes significantly more men than women. She said Macron has worked to increase female representation in parliament and has achieved gender parity in his Cabinet.

“In terms of advisers there are more men than women,” she acknowledged. “But he is working on it.”


Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.

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