Sexual Harassment and the Future of Women’s Rights in France

Now that the case against D.S.K. seems to be falling apart, many in the media are pondering what the future holds for women’s rights in France. As an American living in Paris, I was curious to get to get the perspective of French women on this. In speaking with French friends and colleagues, every woman has a personal story about hostile work environments and harassment. It’s important to note, however, that not all companies where women work are hostile. As a young woman in France, you’re not guaranteed to come across harassment in every workplace; but, you are almost certain to experience it at some point in your career.

The most common form of harassment is described as “flirtation” here. Male bosses and colleagues will compliment women on their bodies, nag them for dates, etc. In general, men only say “positive” or complimentary things about women’s bodies at work. As one French consultant put it,

Even powerful women in France being interviewed about important policy matters are introduced as ‘the beautiful’ or ‘the charming’ . . . Unless you’re not pretty, then you don’t get anything.

The unwritten rule is women should be flattered and thankful for the attention. Of course, if your boss is harassing you for dates and telling you how great you look in those pants, feeling grateful probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. This type of unwanted flirtation at work is irritating, belittling, and can have long-term repercussions. In short, it’s harassment.

Women here generally feel like they’re under pressure to put it up with this kind of harassment. If they don’t, they’ll be ridiculed and stigmatized for “making a big deal” of it, and the harassing behavior will continue. What does this look like in practice? It can be a challenge for women to get respect. And when the culture of a company is permissive, it can lead to unacceptable and surprisingly adolescent behavior. For example, at one company men in the office would turn up the air-conditioning when an attractive woman wore a light blouse, in hopes they’d be better able to see her nipples. The woman who related this story, said she had complained about similar incidents in the past at that company and was repeatedly brushed off. So in this case, she felt there was nothing for her to do… except to turn off the air-conditioning in the future. Protests are, for the most part, quiet and understated. (Cf. Marche des salopes (“Slut Walk”)).

In recent months though, protests are getting louder. Where it was formally considered inappropriate or unwise for women to speak up, there is now mounting evidence of women challenging harassment and assault. One anti-harassment organization—Association Europeénne Contre les Violence Faites aux Femmes au Travail—reported a 600% increase in sexual harassment complaints after D.S.K.’s arrest in New York was made public. Women are making complaints against other high-profile men, including French government minister Georges Tron. And, writer Tristane Banon announced, through her attorney, her intent to file a complaint against D.S.K. in France for attempted rape. When she first made a public statement in 2007 about the incident, D.S.K.’s name was bleeped out. Times have changed.

D.S.K.’s arrest is not the only catalyst for change, just the most sensational one. Globalization and multi-national corporations are having an impact on the work culture of France. Sexual harassment training is a normal for French companies that do business with the United States. Moreover, the younger generation of French women is less tolerant of casual misogynism and more willing to stand up for their rights. As these women enter and gain prominence in the workforce, they are bringing in higher expectations and changing the culture.

(Sonya Ziaja, is an American attorney living in Paris, France. She writes regularly for LegalMatch’s Law Blog and Shark. Laser. Blawg.)