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Emmanuel Macron vows to rid France of a society ‘sick with sexism’

President outlines a raft of measures that will modernise the country’s rape laws and better protect women’s rights

An activist dressed as 'Marianne', the symbol of the French Republic, holds a poster reading 'Liberty, Equality, Sisterhood'. EPA/Christophe Petit Tesson
An activist dressed as 'Marianne', the symbol of the French Republic, holds a poster reading 'Liberty, Equality, Sisterhood'. EPA/Christophe Petit Tesson

French society is “sick with sexism”, president Emmanuel Macron announced at the weekend, as he launched a raft of measures which will be made law in 2018 which will revolutionise some of the anomalies in the country’s legal system regarding rape laws and would see wolf-whistling and sexually suggestive comments made towards women in the street punishable by on-the-spot fines.

He also set out plans to institute ‘on-demand’ bus stops for women to get home safely at night, something that is currently being trialled in some French towns.

The global movement against sexism in society initially sparked by the revelations of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s abuse of women has taken hold with especial force in France, which has been dogged by a patriarchal political and social system.

French women have rallied behind the hashtag #metoo, sharing their stories of sexual and verbal abuse, and on Saturday thousands marched through Paris in the largest women’s demonstration in the city to mark the UN’s international day for the elimination of violence against women with banners declaring ‘Liberty, Equality, Sorority’, ‘Yesterday’s Victims, Tomorrow's Heroes’ and ‘We Won’t Remain Silent’.

Talking to a conference also honouring the UN event on Saturday, Mr Macron said “Our criminal law contains intolerable ambiguities. We must without any doubt align the presumption [of rape] with the age of sexual consent, which is fixed at 15.”

As it currently stands, French law allows for a child to agree to have sex. This quirk in the legal code was brought to the fore in a couple of cases over the last few months when courts ruled that two 11-year-old girls could not have been raped by much older men because it was argued that they had consented to having sex.

When such an act takes place, it is not prosecuted as rape but as ‘attouchement sexuel’, essentially molestation; rape carries a maximum sentence of 20 years compared to just five years for the ‘lesser’ offence. A case involving a 31-year-old French teacher having sex with a 14-year-old pupil is currently going through the courts where the man is charged with ‘attouchement sexuel’. The pupil claims that she was in love with her teacher but her parents are pressing for stronger charges.

Mr Macron also addressed the issue of violence towards women in society, observing a minute’s silence for the 123 women who had died in France at the hands of their current or former partners in 2016. “Under their blows, under their abuse, a woman dies every three days in France,” he said of violent men. “France must no longer be one of those countries where women are afraid.”

Giving detail of his crackdown against ‘verbal violence’ towards women, Mr Macron demanded that France not be “one of those countries where women live in fear. Gender-based insults will be punishable by law. Offenders will face a deterrent fine.”

“Many women have said that the first sexist violence they meet is in the street,” the French president said. “And many harassers practice wolf whistling and other types of verbal stigmatisation - and for a long time people reacted with indifference.”

“This is unacceptable. Women must feel comfortable in public spaces. Women in the republic must not be afraid to use public spaces,” he added. “This must be one of the priorities of the police.”

French political life itself has been plagued by sexism with many high-profile men remaining in positions of power despite serious allegations being made against them.

Dominic Strauss Kahn, a former cabinet minister and head of the IMF who was once spoked of a future president of the republic, was the subject of widespread rumours about his conduct before he was arrested in New York City for an alleged sexual assault on a chambermaid in a hotel.

Green MP Denis Baupin, a vice-president of France’s national assembly, resigned in 2016 after eight women accused him of sexual harassment.

At the time, campaign group Osez le Féminisme issued a statement calling for an end to the “impunity for those in power”.

“To think the Denis Baupin affair is isolated is a mistake. For several years, men in politics have been implicated in affairs of violent machismo,” it wrote, citing the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair.

The group came out this weekend in support of Mr Macron’s approach and wanted there to be proper funding in place to support any measures.

“Without financing, any plan to communicate, to train, to raise awareness or to support victims will be in vain,” a statement from Osez le Féminisme said.

Updated: November 27, 2017 07:01 PM