Meet the women leading the resistance to #MeToo
When 22-year-old student Marie Laguerre was punched in the face by a man outside a Parisian cafe after rebuffing his advances, the CCTV video of the incident raced around the world.
The violence of the assault (and the fact bystanders allowed the man to leave the scene) crystallised visually what French women have complained about with increasing vigour in recent years; their nation's culture of public harassment.
"This is an unacceptable behaviour," wrote Ms Laguerre on social media after the incident.
"It happens every day, everywhere, and I don't know a single woman who doesn't have a similar story. I am sick of feeling unsafe walking in the street."
Last week, her assailant was finally arrested. And the French Parliament has since approved long-planned legislation imposing on-the-spot fines for public harassment.
The relatively new French President, Emmanuel Macron, has used extraordinarily frank language about his country's treatment of women. Announcing the penalty regime for harassment, he said France was "sick with sexism".
Gender Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa told Foreign Correspondent public harassment was a symptom of French attitudes to women more broadly.
"You never hear comments about a man's appearance in the street," she said.
"When a man walks around the streets, you never hear, or extremely rarely, that all the women he comes across whistle, call out, 'Hey you're cute!' … It only happens to women.
"I think the underlying idea is that men own public space, that women are perceived as intruders in this public space. And I think that, consciously or unconsciously, when men are always trying to validate the presence of women in public space, it's also telling them they have no business being out there and they belong in the home.
"I think it's the culture of sexism that we're fighting against and that we want to replace with a culture of equality."
#MeToo meets French resistance
France is famous for its feminist theorists, but there is also a deep resistance in the country to feminist ideas and movements. When the #Metoo movement gathered speed across the globe, the French resistance was led by women; more than 100 high-profile women (including screen goddess Catherine Deneuve) signed an open letter to Le Monde criticising #Metoo.
The now-infamous letter defended "men who've been disciplined in the workplace … when their only crime was to touch a woman's knee or to steal a kiss".
The letter also argued "freedom to bother" — a man's right to make a pass at a woman, even if a clumsy one — was "indispensable to sexual freedom".
Peggy Sastre, the scientist and philosopher who co-wrote the text of the letter, said the intention behind it was absolutely not to excuse rape or sexual assault, but to protest against the wholesale denunciation of men.
"The rule of law is good and we've made much progress, particularly in the awareness, in the way victims are cared for and in the prohibition of sexual crimes and of violence against women, thanks to the rule of law," she said.
"And we must go on with this movement. We must not go back to some medieval logic which is about reputation and ostracism. We know it doesn't work. It leads to witch hunts, to a lot of excesses, to a lot of people wrongly accused.
"And one of the principles of modern justice is that it's worse to wrongly accuse an innocent person than to release someone who's guilty."
Sexual liberty remains paramount
France is a nation deeply attached to the notion of liberty, and its cultural elite are still strongly influenced by the French cultural revolution of 1968, which started with university students protesting for the right to visit each other's dormitory rooms and sleep together.
The revolution's legacy of militant sexual freedom even stretched to a defence of paedophilia; a petition circulated in the late 1970s and signed by influential thinkers including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida argued sex with children should not be a crime.
Such thinking has since fallen out of favour, but it is part of the reason France has never had a legal age of consent or an offence of statutory rape.
This deficiency became a matter for public debate last year when a 28-year-old Frenchman successfully defended a rape charge on the grounds that the complainant, an 11-year-old girl, had consented to sex with him.
The Government attempted to legislate a formal age of consent last month, but met resistance on the grounds of a defendant's right to the presumption of innocence.
As a compromise, the newly enacted law now sets 15 as the "age of majority" and increases the penalties for sexual assault. Sex with a child younger than 15 is an offence, but not automatically deemed to be rape. A judge must decide in each instance whether the child was capable of consent.
Ms Schiappa said the final bill was the result of several compromises.
"Some people wanted the age to be 13, not 15. Some wanted 18. Some people wanted to change the wording," she said.
"What's important for me is with this age of 15, which the President has committed to, we have a law that's very clearly worded and at the same time constitutional, because in France laws must be constitutional and follow the constitution and therefore the right to defend oneself."
Adelaide Bon, a French writer and activist, believes rape is not taken seriously enough in France.
Bon was raped by a stranger at the age of nine. Her attacker was not captured until decades after the assault, and was the subject of 80 other complaints from victims of whom she had been unaware. Her attacker was convicted, but is appealing against the conviction.
Bon said the reporting of rape was low among both child and adult victims.
"Most of the time, someone who's been the victim of rape will see the rape downgraded to just harassment," she said.
"It's not the same court; it's a court that takes a lot less time and so the penalties are going to be fewer.
"Rape is minimised in France. Most people think it's not such a big deal."
Ms Schiappa said French culture was changing; in part because of movements like #MeToo or its French equivalent, which is called #Balancetonporc (Call Out Your Pig), and in part because women are entering the workforce in greater numbers and expecting equality when they get there.
"I think men's attitudes are changing because they're asking themselves what they can or can't do," she said.
"Some men told me, 'I thought of my past and wondered if sometimes I went a bit too far', so I think it's interesting that this assessment is taking place.
"Those facts concern a majority of women but are caused by a minority of men. Fortunately the great majority of men behave perfectly with women."
Watch The French Letter on Foreign Correspondent tonight at 8:00pm on ABC TV.