France’s Senate began reviewing a bill on sexual harassment on Wednesday after the country’s highest constitutional body struck the original law from the books in May after judging it as being “too vague”.
The proposed legislation was urgently pieced together by France’s Justice Minister Christiane Taubira and the Minister of Women’s Rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, in the hopes that it might be adopted into law with the least possible delay.
In the text, sexual harassment is redefined as “subjecting an individual to repeated acts, comments or any other conduct of a sexual nature that are detrimental to a person’s dignity because of their degrading or humiliating character, thereby creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.”
The text also breaks sexual harassment up into three different categories, each one punishable by a fine and possible jail time, depending on the crime’s gravity. The most serious of the three carries a maximum sentence of three years imprisonment and a 45,000 euro fine.
Many women’s right’s groups have applauded the proposed text as a step in the right direction, but have said it should be considered a work in progress.
“The law has improved because we now know what constitutes sexual harassment,” Emmanuelle Piet, president of the Feminist Collective Against Rape (Collectif Féministe Contre le Viol, or CFCV), told FRANCE 24. “While the new law will mean that individuals will once again be able to take legal action against sexual harassment, there are still some aspects of it that need to be improved.”
Sexual harassment law struck down
The case that led to the demise of France’s former law on sexual harassment began in 2009 in the eastern town of Villefranche-sur-Saône, when a city hall employee, Aline Rigaud, sued the deputy mayor Gérard Ducray for sexual misconduct.
According an account Rigaud gave to the French daily Le Libération, Ducray had called her into his office on two separate occasions, where he kissed her on the cheeks, caressed her hands and touched her on the thigh.
Convicted for sexual harassment in June, 2010, Ducray, a former junior minister under Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, challenged the decision. He was again found guilty in March, 2011 by an appeals court in the southeastern city of Lyon. Ordered to serve three months in prison and pay a fine of 5,000 euros, Ducray took the case before the country’s highest constitutional body. Instead of arguing his client’s defence, Ducray’s lawyer attacked the very substance of the law, questioning its constitutionality. Upon review, the legislation was struck down on May 4, on the basis that the law’s text was “too vague.”
The case against Ducray was dismissed.
While some women’s rights activists had criticised the law for its lack of precision in the past, France suddenly found itself with no legal recourse for individuals who felt they had been the victims of sexual harassment.
“For the past two months, there have still been laws against sexual assault and rape to protect women, but not sexual harassment,” Piet pointed out.
An imperfect bill
As the new bill on sexual harassment enters the first stages towards becoming a law, women’s rights groups are lobbying for certain parts of it to be re-examined. According to Piet, there are fears that other sexual crimes may be confused with the new definition of sexual harassment, meaning that they will be not be treated with due seriousness.
“Under no circumstances should other crimes be reclassified,” Piet said. “Rape and sexual assault are completely different from sexual harassment.”
There are also concerns that as the text stands now, it will be very difficult to prove if a person has been sexually harassed through “threats” or “pressure”.
“That’s why we’re asking that a ‘right to health’ be included in the law,” Piet said, explaining that if a victim of sexual harassment is forced to miss work because of their mental state, a doctor’s note can be used as evidence in a court.
Under French law, if the Senate votes to adopt the bill, it will then be passed on to the National Assembly, a practice known as the “shuttle”. Lawmakers hope to approve the legislation as soon as possible, so that a final vote might happen by the end of July.