Last week, France announced a bill to its Council of Ministers that would allow some of the sexual misbehaviors and crimes brought to light in recent months to be more easily punishable by law.
There are four sections of the legislation: First, street harassment would be punished on the spot with a fine anywhere from 90 to 750 euros. Second, the law would set the age of sexual consent to 15. Third, the limitation period for sexual crimes committed against minors would be extended to 30 years (up from 20 years) after the victim turns 18. Finally, there would be tougher sanctions against online group harassment (this means that any person who takes part in harassing someone online, even if they just sent a few tweets, will be considered responsible).
Though the Harvey Weinstein scandal, France’s #BalanceTonPorc movement, and the worldwide Me Too movement have clearly put more attention on sexual assault worldwide, behind each of these pieces of legislation exists a person or a story that began debates in France long before these issues became daily top news stories.
In 2012, a Belgian woman named Sofie Peeters released a documentary called “Woman of the Street.” Using a hidden camera, she recorded and denounced sexist remarks and behaviors that she heard from men while simply walking down the street.
Insults such as “bitch” and “slut” rained down on her, as well as indecent behavior and propositions. The young woman, then a student, said she was surprised that she experienced this kind of harassment “5 to 10 times a day.”
As the French website Madmoizelle noted, the video’s widespread impact caused politicians around Europe to react. The city of Brussels, for example, decided shortly thereafter that this type of sexual harassment would be punishable by law. Last Wednesday, the French government joined Brussels by proposing the establishment of a fine for street harassment and sexist insults.
Statute Of Limitations
In October 2016, French television and radio presenter Flavie Flament revealed in her book The Consolation that she had been raped by a well-known photographer (though she didn’t reveal his name in the book) almost 30 years before.
She explained to the JDD, a French weekly newspaper, that she withheld her aggressor’s identity because of the “justice of the limitation concerning this type of crime.”
“Today this man is legally out of reach, yet that does not make him innocent. I cannot pursue my tormentor and I will live with this for the rest of my days,” she said.
Now her focus is on fighting to extend the limitation period for crimes committed against minors. In France, the period is 20 years if the victim is an adult, and if the victim is a minor at the time of the incident, it is up to 20 years after the victim turns 18. Minors thus have until age 38 to file a case. This is not enough time for some victims, who may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or go years without realizing a crime they have suffered.
“A victim of rape sometimes ‘wakes up’ many years after. For these people, coming out about what happened can take a long time. They may decide to pursue legal action after seeing a psychologist, which can be a long reconstructive effort,” explained Laure Ignace, a lawyer from the European Association Against Violence Directed at Women in the Workplace (AVWW), to the French paper Le Monde.
Flament was given the task to work on extending the statute of limitations by Laurence Rossignol, the French minister of families, children and women’s rights. She will also create a documentary, “Rape Against Minors,” to highlight the subject.
Since then, nearly 30,000 people have signed a petition to extend the limitation period. In November 2017, Emmanuel Macron reiterated in his anti-violence against women proposal that the government should extend the period to 30 years for minors.
The Age Of Sexual Consent
The trial on the rape of an 11-year-old girl
Concerning the age of consent for minors, the story that has created debates is rather recent, even if the subject itself is not. The acquittal of a man tried for the rape of an 11-year-old girl caused outrage in France in November 2017.
Twenty years old at the time of the trial, the girl accused the man of rape, but the defendant stated it was consensual. He also asserted that she lied about her age, which she disputed.
A similar affair sparked controversy in France two months earlier. A 28-year-old man was put on trial for “sexual abuse” and not “rape” after having sex with an 11-year-old. In France, punishment for the former is much lighter.
These two cases, particularly the one in November, raised numerous voices in favor of establishing an age of sexual consent, to distinguish the difference between children (those deemed unable to consent) and sexually consenting adults.
Emannuel Macron asked for the age to be set to 15 during a speech on Nov. 27, 2017, shortly after the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Marlène Schiappa, the Secretary of State for Equality between women and men has announced that, under a certain age, a minor should no longer be considered a consenting sexual adult. “Below a certain age, it should be considered that there can be no debate, ever, on the sexual consent of a child, and that for any child below a certain age, it would be automatically considered rape or sexual assault,” explains Schiappa, adding that this legal age could be somewhere “between 13 and 15.”
Following a video on harassment published on Madmoizelle in May 2016, actress and YouTube personality Marion Seclin received a wave of insults and hate comments online. More than 40,000, according to Seclin.
What was the reason for this surge of hate? The actress explained that the street was not a place to flirt. “It angered me that a large number of internet users decided not to debate with me, but come at me with insults. (...) I have received nearly 40,000 death and rape threats, people asking me to commit suicide, or threatening to kill my family, or other insults,” she later recounted.
This case of online harassment brought to light the impunity available to harassers, as Seclin found herself destitute and with little possible recourse.
In December 2017, she told her story at a TEDx conference and explained why she was “the French champion of cyberbullying.” “Everything that happens online is happening in real life,” she said.
“It’s not me against 40,000 people, it’s me against one person and one person and one person ... I do not have the time, nor the energy, nor the means to file a suit against 40,000 pseudonyms. Have you ever tried to file a case against someone? Do you know the administrative steps to file a case against someone in France? It is very long. So imagine 40,000 people,” she said during the talk, referring to the difficulty in pursuing legal action in France against cyberbullying.
In February, a report from France’s High Council of Equality between Women and Men (HCE) was submitted to the government with recommendations for ensuring cyberbullying would not go unpunished.
In the bill, presented last Wednesday, a sanction appears that is related to the phenomenon of “mob mentality,” or when several people harass the same person together.
The bill will still need to be voted on by French Parliament before it passes, but members of the French government are clearly trying to make major strides when it comes to protecting girls and women.