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Minister: France gets serious over sexual harassment

Harvey Weinstein has been accused by numerous women of having sexually harassed or assaulted them.

French Junior Minister in charge of Equality between men and women Marlene Schiappa. Picture: @gouvernementFR/Twitter.

PARIS - The Harvey Weinstein scandal is forcing a rethink of attitudes toward sexual harassment in France, a country that cherishes its self-image as the land of seduction and romance, said the minister tasked with cracking down on violence against women.

Movie producer Weinstein has been accused by numerous women of having sexually harassed or assaulted them in incidents dating back to the 1980s, including three who said they were raped. Weinstein denies having non-consensual sex with anyone.

More than 300,000 accounts of sexual harassment or abuse have been published under the French #balancetonporc or #squealonyourpig hashtag on Twitter in the past week, though some conservatives say the new trend amounts to an attack on the French way of life in the name of US-style puritanism.

“We are really at a turning point, with the Weinstein affair as a trigger,” Gender Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa told Reuters on Friday in an interview.

France has often debated sexual harassment over the past decade following scandals involving French politicians.

Six years ago, a sex scandal forced former French finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn to resign as head of the International Monetary Fund, provoking a round of soul-searching in France about sexual abuse that goes undeclared or undetected in the upper echelons of power.

But Schiappa said the Weinstein scandal could have a more durable impact because it had prompted women from all walks of life to denounce harassment and assault at work and in public places, not only in the corridors of power.

“When it’s about politicians, most people just slam politicians rather than seeing it as a wider issue,” said Schiappa, a 34-year-old blogger-turned-minister in President Emmanuel Macron’s new government.

“LIBERATION”

“But when it’s to do with cinema it has a wider impact, because ... people identify with actors and actresses,” she added, describing the wave of testimonies on social media as a “liberation”.

This week Schiappa kicked off nationwide consultations over a law due to be completed early next year that will include steps to fight sexual harassment on the streets as well as extend the statute of limitation for rape of minors.

Not all French people approve of her plans or of the #squealonyourpig trend on Twitter.

“France is a country of men who love women,” wrote pundits Berenice Levet and Guillaume Bigot in Le Figaro daily on Thursday. “It is not a country of Platonic love,” they said, warning against the import of what French conservatives have long denigrated as a killjoy “Anglo-Saxon” view of relationships between men and women.

Responding to such criticism, Schioppa said: “There is some reluctance, some say we will kill the culture of the ‘French lover’... if we punish street harassment.”

“But it’s the opposite. We want to preserve seduction, chivalry and ‘l‘amour à la francaise’ by saying what is key is consent. Between consenting adults everything is allowed, we can seduce, talk, but if someone says ‘no’, it’s ‘no’ and it’s final,” she said.

Much of the French debate focuses on plans to slap fines on harassment in the street and whether that is really feasible.

Schiappa acknowledged it was hard to define, adding details would be decided through wide consultations in coming months.

“For instance, it’s following a woman through several blocks or asking for her phone number 15 straight times,” said Schiappa, adding that she personally did not believe wolf-whistles should be characterized as sexual harassment.

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