In many countries, victims of sexual harassment often only have two choices: either press legal charges against the perpetrator as part of a lengthy process with an uncertain outcome or simply ignore the offense. France is now trying to establish a third option: on-the-spot fines. Such fines could ensure swift punishment, but would they also relegate sexual harassment to the status of a mundane violation like speeding or illegal parking, as some critics argue?
Despite the skepticism, at least two European countries are pushing ahead or have already passed laws that give police officers more leeway to punish harassers immediately. Finland introduced on-the-spot fines last year, and France is considering passing similar legislation next year, although the level of penalties there is still unclear. The fines would be one component of a broader crackdown on sexual violence and harassment, proposed by the country's equality minister, Marlène Schiappa.
“It’s completely necessary because at the moment street harassment is not defined in the law,” Schiappa said in an interview on Monday with RTL, a French radio station. Legislators are expected to debate her proposals, which are currently being written by five MPs and include on-the-spot fines. A law could be passed next year. French President Emmanuel Macron has indicated that he is willing to mobilize additional community police officers to enforce the policy.
Schiappa's proposals had already been discussed for weeks but gained new momentum after sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein resulted in the global #MeToo social media campaign over the weekend. Victims of sexual harassment from across the globe shared their experiences with other users online, and a similar hashtag quickly gained traction in France.
Whereas on-the-spot fines could send a message to perpetrators that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, critics wonder how police officers would draw a line between flirting and harassment in cases that are less clear. Asked about the question on Monday, Schiappa indicated that the law would mainly target obvious violations and was not designed to settle all cases.
“We know very well at what point we start feeling intimidated, unsafe or harassed in the street,” the minister said.
If a stranger talked to a women “10, 20 centimeters from your face” or asked “for your number 17 times,” then a fine would be appropriate, Schiappa said.
French legislators will likely also consider the experiences of Finnish authorities, where a similar policy was announced last year. Speaking to Finland's Hufvudstadsbladet newspaper at the time, former Helsinki police chief Lasse Aapio said that “the existing threshold for sexual harassment complaints is pretty high, but perhaps we’ll be able to decrease it if police will be able to act immediately.” Reached by phone on Wednesday, Aapio declined to discuss the policy or its impact.
It is unknown to what extent Finnish police officers have so far made use of it, said Johanna Niemi, a law and gender studies professor at Finland's University of Turku.
Still, Niemi emphasized that there was support for the policy in Finland. “It works the same way as ticketing for traffic violations — the police gives the perpetrator a ticket and he pays it. If he does not pay, we have an efficient enforcement system that picks up the fine from your salary,” Niemi said. Suspects can reportedly both be fined on the scene — for instance if officers witnessed the sexual harassment — or later on, if an officers finds a witness account to be trustworthy.
“The idea of the process is that it is a 'sidewalk investigation' and done at the spot and the ticket is written and given immediately,” said Niemi.
If suspects believe they were unfairly fined, they can later challenge the decisions in a court. Victims of sexual harassment are also still able to press criminal charges, even if suspects were already fined.
“It is better than nothing,” Niemi said. So far, it is unclear to what extent the proposed French law will borrow from the Finnish approach.