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France’s Gender Equality Minister Has Already Cracked Down on Catcalling and Online Abuse. She’s Just Getting Started

12 minute read

The first time a man stopped Marlène Schiappa and said something obscene, she was 14 years old and walking down a street in Paris’ northern 19th arrondissement. Shocked, she rushed home to her apartment and told her family. They were unsurprised. “They just told me, ‘Oh, that’s normal. It’s always like that,’” says Schiappa, who has served as France’s Minister for Gender Equality since May 2017. When it happened again, she didn’t bring it up. “I thought it was my fault and it was up to me to have a strategy to deal with it: which clothes to wear, which paths to take. I was resigned to it.”

Two decades later, it may seem like little has changed. On July 27, a 22-year-old architecture student, Marie Laguerre, was walking past a cafe in the same district when a man accosted her, making “dirty noises, comments.” She told him to shut up, and he did, before slapping her roundly across the face in front of around a dozen witnesses. But Laguerre didn’t stay silent. She uploaded CCTV footage of the incident to YouTube, where it was watched over a million times in 48 hours and received thousands of outraged comments.

The incident also sparked a national conversation about the sexual harassment women face—a conversation that Schiappa has been trying to get started since President Emmanuel Macron appointed her to his cabinet last May. According to a 2018 national poll, eight in 10 women have experienced street harassment in France, compared with 65% in the U.S. and 64% in neighboring Britain. But as the #MeToo movement makes waves around the world, women in France are refusing to accept harassment as a part of life.

A few days after her story went viral, Laguerre launched a website inviting women to share their stories of street harassment under the name “Ta Guele” (‘Shut up’ in French slang). In the fall, more concrete measures will arrive, as police begin issuing fines to those who “annoy, bother and threaten” women in the street. It’s the headline measure in Schiappa’s landmark law against sexist and sexual violence, which was officially approved in parliament on August 1. “We’re lowering society’s threshold of tolerance—we’ll no longer tolerate threats directed at women,” Schiappa tells TIME, sitting in her office in France’s grand parliamentary district, a few blocks from the Seine.

It has been nine months since Schiappa, 35, began consulting on her law, in the wake of the global wave of anger over sexual abuse unleashed by the Harvey Weinstein scandal last October. In most countries, the response has been driven from outside the halls of government: in Chile, students have paralysed universities to protest sexual discrimination; in South Korea, women have demanded an overhaul of workplace culture; in Hollywood, actors founded the Time’s Up fund to help women sue abusive bosses and colleagues. But Schiappa’s law—which includes stronger sentences for rapists, measures to counter online abuse and fines for harassing women in the street—is one of the first attempts to translate the enthusiasm of movements like Me Too into permanent legislative change.

In France, Schiappa’s measures have often been met with resistance. While she calls her country “the birthplace of feminism,”—referring to the revolutionary mid-20th Century work of philosopher Simone de Beauvoir—her quest to end sexual and sexist abuse has called attention to less progressive parts of French culture now at odds with the rest of the western world. France has no legal age of consent—an anomaly in Europe that means men who have sex with minors can avoid the most serious charge of rape (but still be charged with sexual abuse). The country’s culture of widespread persistent catcalling was defended by one far-right French politician as “a kind of frenchness [gauloiserie] that has nothing to do with harassment,” while some prominent women have publicly denounced Me Too as “a wave of purification.” At times, Schiappa’s pursuit of change has been an uphill battle.

French woman Marie Laguerre who posted online a video in which she is seen being hit by a man in the street, poses for pictures on August 1, 2018, in Paris. Paris prosecutors have opened an inquiry after a young woman posted a shocking video of a man punching her in broad daylight outside a cafe after she angrily responded to his sexual harassment, legal sources said on July 30, 2018.Alain Jocard—AFP/Getty Images

In November, six months after taking office, Macron announced gender equality as “the great cause of his five year term”—putting Schiappa in the spotlight. Her path into politics had been unusual. She grew up sharing a room with her sister in the projects of northern Paris, raised by her father, a Trotskyist teacher, and stepmother. She did not attend the ENA, the elite political finishing school that turns out much of France’s political class, including Macron and his Prime Minister, but studied communications and worked at an advertising agency.

Schiappa first got married at the age of 19 but divorced soon after. She went on to meet her husband Cedric Brugiere and, at 24, gave birth to the first of their two daughters. Soon after, she launched Maman Travaille, a blogging network for working mothers to share their experiences. She served as a local politician in Le Mans, western France, for two years before meeting Macron in 2016, just as his new centrist En Marche! Party was launching an assault on the old guard of French politics ahead of national elections.

For some, Schiappa’s embrace of an uncompromising, zeitgeisty kind of feminism makes her the perfect person to set the current mood into law. Among her 18 published books is the first French-language volume on rape culture. In March, she shocked reporters by performing explicit parts of the Vagina Monologues in Paris.

Such boldness has set her apart from the sanitized messages of equality preached by those in similar offices elsewhere. But it has also left her open to criticism. In February a magazine profile labeled Schiappa the government’s “blundering, too talkative young cousin.” Both political opponents and fellow feminist bloggers have scoffed at radical proposals such as the creation of a “mummy diploma” for stay-at-home mothers to put on their resume. A non-stop Twitter habit has led to some questionable public interventions: last year, she uploaded three photos of herself walking the street at night with the caption “The laws of the republic protect women, they apply at all times and in all places – MS,” sparking mockery for self-righteousness and accusations of minimizing the experience of victims of abuse.

Street harassment—which she defines as “following, yelling at or asking a woman for her number even after she said she’s not interested”—has become Schiappa’s cause celebre. Her plans to fine those who do it—90 euros ($104) if paid immediately, and 750 ($867) if paid later, and 3,000 ($3,467) for a second offense—have made headlines around the world and earned criticism from many on the right in France.

But even some on the left have slammed the fines as unfair, since they penalize those without 90 euros in their bank account. Schiappa bristles at that criticism. “It’s the same principle as paying a fine for not having a train ticket or dropping cigarettes in the street. I don’t understand why fighting against sexism inspires so much debate, when fines for other bad behavior do not.”

Others say the fines could backfire, alienating the very men who Schiappa wants to reach. But, she points out: “When the vast majority of men want to seduce a woman, they do not go into the street, find a woman, call her a slut and ask her for her number 45 times and grab her ass.” Most men “have nothing to fear from this law,” she says.

When Schiappa speaks, the words tumble out at a breathless pace, but she rarely stumbles or has to rephrase herself. It’s a skill that has served her well as she does the rounds of French radio and TV, defending her enforcement of top-down feminist change on a society that is not always comfortable with it. In January, around 100 women, including film star Catherine Deneuve, wrote an open letter in French daily Le Monde saying the Me Too movement and its French equivalent balancetonporc (‘squeal on your pig’) had strayed into “puritanism.” “Insistent or clumsy flirting isn’t a crime, nor is gallantry a macho aggression,” they wrote.

Many saw the letter as revealing the divide between young and old and their differing expectations of feminism. Schiappa disagrees. “It’s not a generational thing—it’s a class issue,” she says. “Some of the women behind this backlash don’t take the metro, they travel by cars and stay in safe neighborhoods. They don’t understand what life is like for women in other classes.” Schiappa says they are mistaken about what the movement does. “It’s not puritanism because it’s not about limiting sexuality. You can’t feel like you’re in a sexual atmosphere when you’re scared.”

While the internet has given women a platform to break silence over sexual abuse, with #MeToo taking off on social media, the online space has also been exploited by abusers. A 2014 French law already punishes online harassment with up to 2 years in prison and fines of up to 30,000 euros ($35,000). Schiappa’s law widens the scope of that, focusing in particular on “group harassment”—where several people target one victim “in a concerted way.”

She admits it will be impossible for the government to police the internet without the help of tech companies. “If Facebook can take down an image of Liberty Leading the People because it breaches community guidelines,” she says, referencing Facebook’s censorship in March of an iconic French Revolutionary painting in which a bare-chested woman leads soldiers over barricades, “then it can take down homophobic, sexist and racist content much quicker than it is doing right now.” In June she met Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg in San Francisco to discuss the law, while Macron hosted Mark Zuckerberg in Paris in May. “If talking—soft power—doesn’t work, we’ll legislate,” she warns.

Women hold a banner reading "still feminist" with the Eiffel tower in background on the Trocadero esplanade in Paris on January 21, 2018 during a women's march organized as part of a global day of protests, a year to the day since Donald Trump took office as U.S. president.JACQUES DEMARTHON—AFP/Getty Images

While Schiappa’s radical moves on street harassment have garnered the most attention in the international media, her law’s passage through France’s parliamentary system has highlighted the more worrying limitations of legal protection when it comes to sexual abuse in the country. One fact remains unchanged: in France, there is no such thing as statutory rape.

That fact came into glaring focus in September 2017, when a 28-year-old man who had sex with an 11 year-old girl was tried not for rape but for sexual abuse of a minor—a charge punishable by five years in prison and a 70,000 euro ($81,000) fine, compared to 20 years for the rape of a minor. (After a U-turn by the court, he was eventually tried for rape in February; the case is still ongoing). In a separate incident in November, a court acquitted a 30-year-old man who had sex with an 11-year-old girl of rape, determining he had not used the “force, threat, violence or surprise” that constitute rape in French law. Both cases prompted public outrage and widespread calls for the government to introduce an age of consent, under which all sex is considered rape.

Responding to the calls, Schiappa said in March that her law would set the age of consent at 15—the average among European countries. But these plans were abandoned in May after France’s highest administrative court ruled they would undermine the legal presumption of innocence for the accused. Instead of the age of consent, Schiappa’s law now expands the definition of those factors to include the abuse of a victim who is “vulnerable because they do not have the necessary discernment to consent”. It also lengthens the statute of limitations on sexual crimes against children from 20 to 30 years. But 81% of French people still want an age of consent, according to a poll published by a victims’ charity in July. Opposition lawmakers and children’s rights groups have roundly condemned Schiappa’s U-turn.

The consent age issue was just one reminder of the complexity of legislating in the space of sexual abuse and power dynamics. But Schiappa is not deterred. A few hours after talking to TIME in early July, she addressed the vast semicircular chamber of France’s senate to defend her law, which passed four weeks later. She quoted Simone Veil, a holocaust survivor and French politician who fought for the legalization of abortion: “She often said, “You only need to listen to women. And it’s in that spirit of listening that we come here today.”

Schiappa wants to make sure that there is now someone listening to women, and to the 14-year-old girls that run home to report their first tales of abuse. But as the ink dries on her law, the debate continues about how best to protect and empower women—online, in the streets, in the courts and in legislation. Listening, it seems, may have been the easy part.

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Write to Ciara Nugent/Paris at ciara.nugent@time.com