PARIS — In the first case invoking a new law against verbal sexual harassment, a French court has fined a man 300 euros — about $350 — for making lewd and insulting comments to a woman aboard a bus in a Paris suburb.
The panel of judges in the case also sentenced the man to nine months in jail — six months of it suspended — for physically assaulting the woman and the driver of the bus.
The measure outlawing verbal harassment — which can include catcalls and unwanted, sexually aggressive speech — brought into focus the kind of daily insults and lewd remarks that French women face. Most used to let them go, but the #MeToo movement and its French version, #Balancetonporc, or “expose your pig,” have encouraged women to go public with their experiences of harassment.
France’s junior minister for gender equality, Marlène Schiappa, who spearheaded the law, applauded the outcome of the first case prosecuted under it. She wrote in a tweet: “Bravo to the bus driver for his quick reaction and to everyone for carrying out the sanctions. Let’s together put an end to sexist and sexual violence.”
The incident occurred in the suburban town of Draveil, about 10 miles south of Paris, when a 21-year-old woman got on a bus at rush hour, and soon after, so did a man who appeared to be drunk. It was crowded and he was jammed up against her and slapped her behind.
He said “you have big breasts” and called the young woman a “whore,” said Marie-Celine Lawrysz, vice prosecutor in Evry, where the case went to court. She described the remarks as “degrading.”
“The young woman did not stay passive and went to see the bus driver, who tried to intervene,” Lawrysz said. The man then hit the bus driver, who called the police and locked the bus doors until they arrived.
Video surveillance caught what happened, Lawrysz said, and witnesses corroborated the account. Neither the victim nor the man involved have been identified.
In addition to imposing a fine and prison time last week, the judges mandated that the man undergo treatment for alcohol abuse.
France has regarded #MeToo with some skepticism, and a group of prominent French women made headlines early this year when they denounced the movement. But the issue of verbal harassment drew new attention this summer, when a video was released of a man hitting a woman on a Paris sidewalk after she told him to stop catcalling.
Under the law against verbal sexual assault, which went into effect in August, he could have been fined up to 750 euros.
At the time of the law’s consideration in the National Assembly, it was criticized for focusing on a relatively superficial problem, compared to domestic violence, rape and sexual assault, and sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, which remain serious problems in France, within both public institutions and private companies.
But supporters say that if the law emboldens more women to complain when they are publicly harassed, and authorities take those complaints seriously, it could begin to influence French culture, changing attitudes about what it is permissible to say or do to women.
“We live in a society that does not sufficiently punish sexist and sexual violence,” Schiappa said in an interview earlier this year with the broadcaster France Culture. “And we live in a media system of telling stories in a way that makes sexual and sexist violence banal, makes excuses for it and eroticizes it.”