Last month, a video of a woman being attacked by a man who had cat-called her went viral. Months after Emmanuel Macron declared a crackdown on sexual harassment, proposing legislation which would allow on-the-spot fines for ‘degrading or humiliating comments’ and ‘sexual or sexist’ behaviour in public, the video caused global outrage.
While sexual harassment and abuse prevail in every country, France has a particular spotlight on it right now as French women begin to call out a culture that has for so long gone ignored. According to polling institute, Odoxa, more than one in two French women have been victims of sexual harassment and/or sexual assault. Now, with the world finally on their side in highlighting the sexist abuse, French women are taking a stand. Here, we spoke to four French women to find out just how much street harassment in France differs to our own experiences in the UK…
Megane, 30, lives in Paris
‘I get catcalled once or twice a week and what is disturbing me a lot is men who stare. The incessant looking at my body and what I wear happen on a daily basis. It’s an ongoing pressure on us girls when we are going out in public. In London you can wear whatever you want, no one stares the way they do here.’
‘Once a man touched me in the subway. I try not to waste my time replying to the annoying things I’ve been shouted at in the streets but I did say something that time. No one helped me at all, no one moved. People call them micro-aggressions but at the end of the day, it’s a lot.’
‘I live in Paris, and I have to say that street harassment is something we finally talk about, there are ads against it in the subway for the first time this year.’
Gaia, 26, spent five years living in the UK and is now back in Paris
‘Street harassment in Paris is so common and has been for so long already, that Parisian women have incorporated it in their way of living, for example, you will rarely see a true Parisian woman wearing a skirt in the Metro, even in the heart of the summer.
‘I haven’t experienced being cat-called much since my teens, I’m quite tall and sturdy. Although I do remember being called a slut by a group of guys one afternoon in the bus, because I was wearing a jacket with leopard prints. They shouted names at me for a good 10 minutes from the back of the bus and nobody reacted. Everyone had their eyes on me and I had no idea what to do so I just left the bus. I was 17.
‘Nowadays I’m more victim of what I would call passive aggressive harassment. A guy rubbing himself against me in the tube during peak times, one deciding to squeeze my legs in between his while sitting in front of me, using the excuse that there isn’t enough legroom, a hand on my ass while I’m standing at the bar, no real confrontation.
‘Street harassment in London doesn’t compare to Paris. English are too polite and reserved when they’re not drunk, and if they are they won’t like to confront anyone unless they’re in a big group. But even then, I found it extremely rare in the six years I lived in the capital, and I’ve never experienced it myself. I also found that other people were quick to react and defend the victim in London which is certainly not the case in Paris.’
Juliette, 29, is from the Parisian suburbs, but now lives in Paris
‘In France, guys in the street will whistle at you, honk at you and insult you, sometimes for your looks sometimes just because you’re a girl. I lived in Paris in quite a bad area and sometimes I was hurt by guys asking for my number, abusing me and following me home. I remember a guy stopping me in the street to tell me my dress was too short.’
‘I can’t compare it with street harassment in the UK because I didn’t have this experience there but I have seen street harassment in many countries. It doesn’t have any impact on my life but sometimes I try to be careful about my clothes if I’m going to a bad area.’
Cecile, 27, moved to London as a child and spends every summer in Paris, where she currently works...
‘The harassment in Paris intimidating and is far more obvious than in London. People stare and comment way more in general in Paris and you notice it as soon as you arrive, it’s unavoidable. The most common thing I have come across are people cat-calling me and making kissing noises at me in the street. On average, this might happen once a month or less in London. Over here, it happens most days.
‘On my first day of work, I was sitting in my local café for breakfast, I don’t dress provocatively, or draw attention to myself - not that it should ever matter – but I was stared at by every man who was sitting in the cafe or who walked past, and no one was subtle. Although nothing was said and no one came up to me on this occasion, it made me feel incredibly self-conscious and exposed, and tried to drink my coffee as quickly as possible so it ruined the experience and was the opposite of relaxing. When speaking to my colleagues at work about it, they said it may have been because my legs were on show.
‘We then got into a discussion about whether what you wear or not should have an impact on how men feel that they are allowed to treat you. Myself and one colleague shared the view that you should be able to wear whatever you want without being made to feel objectified. My other colleague, however, thought that if you dressed provocatively, it was an invitation for men to stare at you, seeing as "they are men and they can't help themselves". This shocked me hugely, as myself or any of my friends back in London would find this point of view incredibly dated and anti-feminist. And as long as people have these views, you are halting progress and justifying the actions of these men.'