Sexual Harassment: France Could Ban Catcalling in Crackdown on Macho Culture

French minister for gender Equality Marlene Schiappa in Paris on May 18. Schiappa wants to criminalize street harassment. Christophe Archambault/getty

The French government is planning to crack down on the country's macho culture by launching a working group that will study the best way to outlaw street harassment.

The country's gender equality minister Marlène Schiappa has spoken of a gray area in French law between sexual assault, which is already criminalized and defined as "any sexual infringement carried out using violence, coercion, threats or surprise," and innocent attempts at seduction.

Schiappa is setting up the cross-party working group along with the interior and justice ministries. It will listen to expert views on the issue to inform a planned law that would define and punish street harassment so that it "is no longer tolerated in our society."

It's not yet clear quite what scope such a law would have.

In a recent interview in France, Schiappa gave an example of insistent, threatening behavior to illustrate her point: "You are a woman in an underground train. I am a man. I follow you. You get off the train. I get off. You get on another train. I get on too. I ask you for your telephone number. I ask again. I ask a third time. You feel oppressed. That is street harassment."

But in a previous interview with NPR, she has also spoken out about catcalling: "The problem is men thinking they're entitled to yell at a young woman," Schiappa said, "saying like, 'Hey, you, you have a fine ass!'"

The punishment for these offenses is also yet to be defined, though in her NPR interview Schiappa said that on-the-spot fines could function as an effective deterrent.

In the United States, different states have different laws defining street harassment. For example, in Minnesota, several acts including verbal harassment and taking "upskirt" photos are illegal, and in New York, committing street harassment could land you with a $250 fine.