The line between conversation and action

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin.

France’s new catcalling law brings up a larger question about meaningful change

In light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood and the rise of the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment has become an issue at the forefront of everyone’s minds. France is hoping to take action against one particular form of harassment—catcalling.

Catcalling is the act of whistling or shouting sexually suggestive comments to passers-by, usually women. France is looking to make this form of sexual harassment a ticketable offence. A CNN report states: “Men who catcall, harass or follow women on the street in France could face on-the-spot fines under a new sexual abuse law.” However, France isn’t stopping there, according to a report in The New York Times. The law would extend the statute of limitations on reporting sexual assault involving minors as well as fining men who make overt, lewd comments or are aggressive towards women.

While this appears to be a major step forward for women in France, I have doubts about the effectiveness of these potential laws. In a perfect world, this new legislation would come into effect and women in France would feel much safer in their day-to-day lives. These kinds of laws could also set a precedent for other countries in Europe and around the world. However, for all that to happen, these laws will have to overcome many obstacles, the first and most cumbersome being existing free speech laws.

The right to express opinions is ingrained in the French constitution. The constitution states, “Any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law.” Based on this, can catcalling be qualified as an “abuse” of this right? In my opinion, there is potential for catcalling and other forms of street harassment to be considered as such in France.

Also, there is a risk that even if this law does get passed, it will be respected and policed the same way jaywalking is. Most people jaywalk because, if they aren’t caught in the act, they won’t face consequences. I believe catcalling could fall into the same trap. If someone isn’t caught in the act, they won’t face any repercussions. The law would be on the books in France, but I think it would serve more of a symbolic role than anything else.

Symbolic laws and movements, like hashtags, have their advantages. Take the women’s marches that happened around the world after Trump’s election, or the #MeToo movement. All these actions started conversations. However, they also run the risk of fading away. In my opinion, real and recognizable action, like this potential law, is needed for meaningful change to occur.

Laws like the ones being considered in France could be the beginning of that real change. However, I worry this is just a really nice idea that will calm peoples’ rage about sexual harassment rather than actually take a step towards solving a real and pervasive problem.

The fact that these powerful movements have created such a strong outpour of emotion and caused governments to consider new laws fosters great hope. But talking about it and actually getting it done are very different things. The phrase “actions speak louder than words” rings true in this case. I don’t want to undermine how incredible it is that people are starting to have very open and honest conversations. Talking about important issues is always helpful for getting the ball rolling. However, if real, enforceable action isn’t taken in some capacity, whether it be through education or, in this case, new laws being implemented, then we risk living in an endless cycle of talking instead of doing.

Graphic by Zeze Le Lin

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