The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France takes a step forward in fighting catcallers but falls short on setting age of consent

A woman holds a placard on Nov. 14 in Paris that says “Here in France, the law protects rapists and pedophiles” as part of a push for lawmakers to set a minimum legal age for sexual consent. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

Men who whistle and catcall women on the streets of France may soon face stiff punishment.

On Wednesday, lawmakers in the National Assembly — France's lower house of Parliament — passed measures to curb sexual violence. Among them: People caught harassing women on the street could be fined up to $885. Also, underage rape victims would have more time to file complaints.

President Emmanuel Macron said the proposals, which await approval by the Senate, would make it so “women are not afraid to be outside.”

The bill defines street harassment broadly, as anything that “infringes the freedom of movement of women in public spaces and undermines self-esteem and the right to security.” Officials cited examples such as whistling at a woman, badgering her for her phone number or following her on the street. Fines will range from $110 to $885 and must be paid on the spot. Repeat offenders could face penalties of up to $3,500.

About 83 percent of French women say they have faced harassment on the street.

The measure has many supporters, but it also has attracted skeptics, who say it might be difficult to enforce and could end up punishing men for mere flirting.

As sexual harassment and predatory behavior are being reassessed amid the wide-reaching #MeToo movement, some women in France have offered a counterpoint. Earlier this year, more than 100 prominent Frenchwomen — journalists, actresses, doctors and artists — signed an open letter that questioned whether the push for harsher punishment would undermine romance and seduction, long cherished by the French.

“Rape is a crime,” the women wrote. “Insistently or awkwardly hitting on someone is not.” The signatories also defended “a freedom to importune, which is indispensable to sexual freedom.”

But France's minister for gender equality pushed back.

Women took to the streets of Paris on Oct. 28 to denounce sexual harassment as demonstrations took place across France. (Video: Reuters)

“There is some reluctance; some say we will kill the culture of the ‘French lover’ if we punish street harassment,” Marlène Schiappa told reporters. “But it’s the opposite. We want to preserve seduction, chivalry and 'l'amour à la française' 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.”

“We know very well at what point we start feeling intimidated, unsafe or harassed in the street,” she said.

Two cases involving sex with 11-year-olds forced France to raise the age of consent

The legislation also would tweak France's age-of-consent rules. But it doesn't go nearly as far as some activists would have liked.

Lawmakers first proposed making it illegal for someone over 18 to have sex with someone under 15. It came in response to a recent case in which a man in his 20s was not convicted of raping the 11-year-old girl he had sex with because there was no evidence of coercion. He was instead convicted of the lesser crime of sexual abuse. That ruling was widely mocked.

But France's highest administrative court warned that setting a firm legal age of consent “could be seen as violating an adult’s presumption of innocence and would be therefore declared unconstitutional.” Instead, lawmakers opted to classify sex with a minor under 15 as rape if the child “lacked the necessary discernment to consent.”

They also gave rape victims an additional decade to press charges if they are assaulted before they turn 18. Right now, victims have 20 years after their 18th birthday to file a complaint. Under the new measure, that would be bumped up to 30 years.

The measures enjoy widespread public support. One poll found about 90 percent of respondents supported the ban on street harassment. About 70 percent were in favor of setting an minimum age for sexual consent.