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Despite New Sexual Harassment Law, French Women Say #MeToo Has Fallen Short


In the wake of the #MeToo movement, France became the first country to pass a law punishing public sexual harassment. This week, the country's gender equality minister said nearly 450 fines had been given out since it went into effect last August. Still, many French women feel #MeToo has fallen short in France. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has this report.


MARLENE SCHIAPPA: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: French Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa felt vindicated. She told the French Parliament the sheer number of fines proves that police are able to recognize and sanction street harassment on the spot. The law imposes fines of up to 750 euros for intimidating behavior, like following a woman through the streets. Schiappa said it's having an effect.

But some French women say not much has changed in France since the #MeToo movement.


BEARDSLEY: In February, the National Orchestra of France played Berlioz to a packed house. The philharmonic was led by conductor Charles Dutoit, who was brought in at the last minute as a temporary replacement, despite the fact that he's a pariah in much of the music world. Multiple women on several continents have accused him of sexual harassment.


SOPHIE SCHMIDT: (Singing in foreign language).

BEARDSLEY: French soprano Sophie Schmidt is one of Dutoit’s accusers. She says she had to fight off the maestro at the beginning of her career some two decades ago when they toured together in an opera. Because he couldn't conquer her, says Schmidt, he fired her. She never dreamed of pressing charges because it was the 1990s, and no one would have believed her or cared, she says. Schmidt's not sure things are so different today.

SCHMIDT: (Through interpreter) It's scandalous when you see that in France, and with the same orchestra, we hire an old man who is accused of sexual abuse by 10 people. We bring him back against the wishes of the orchestra. For me, it's a slap in the face. This country thinks to put your hand on a woman's breast is normal.

BEARDSLEY: Dutoit has denied all the charges against him and is starting a new conducting job in Russia. France is a mixed bag. Its outspoken gender equality minister did push through the world's first law fining catcalling in the street. Yet, another group of prominent women that included actress Catherine Deneuve penned an open letter saying #MeToo had gone too far. They said men should have the right to be men. Former French member of Parliament Isabelle Attard explains this kind of thinking.

ISABELLE ATTARD: The excuse we hear in France is that we have the French seduction type, and that you can't say to men that they can't seduce women because it's our culture and tradition and blah, blah, blah.

BEARDSLEY: Attard says that right after her election, she herself was preyed upon by a fellow politician.

ATTARD: Just after one day, I start to receive SMS like this for one year. It's more than seduction. It's allusion to sexual acts. And I said no many, many times. And he never stopped.

BEARDSLEY: The man she accused, Denis Baupin, denied the accusations. He sued Attard, the other women who accused him, and the journalist who published the allegations for defamation. Attard contrasted the climate in France with what happened in the United States when journalists reported the stories about Harvey Weinstein.

ATTARD: They had the Pulitzer Prize. They won a prize. And in the opposite in France, the two journalists who did the work, they are going to court.

BEARDSLEY: Baupin lost the case last month. Attard said this could be the beginning of France's real #MeToo moment. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, we incorrectly give the first name of singer Anne-Sophie Schmidt as Sophie.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 17, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In this story, we incorrectly give the first name of singer Anne-Sophie Schmidt as Sophie.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.