An overriding view that women should laugh it off

French women MPs are protesting sexism from colleagues.

Isabelle Attard, a French MP from Normandy, stood outside the French parliament flanked by dozens of protesting female politicians and feminist campaigners. Armed with placards and loudspeakers, they demanded an end to a dangerous French taboo: the everyday groping, harassment, sexist comments and sexual assault that women are still subjected to in parliament by male politicians.

Attard, 46, an independent MP in Calvados, is one of eight women who came forward this week with allegations against the Green MP and deputy speaker of parliament, Denis Baupin, ranging from harassment to sexual assault.

Between 2012 and 2013, Baupin allegedly sent Attard and other MPs barrages of lewd daily text messages in parliament, ranging from “I like it when you cross your legs like that” to proposing during meetings that she become his lover or texting her that he liked it when she resisted.

But but but this is France, home of the oohlala, surely nobody minds that kind of thing there. Didn’t they invent sex or something? Aren’t French women supposed to flirt right back, like good sophisticated girls?

Attard says non.

Elen Debost, another politician in the party, allegedly received about 100 messages of serious sexual harassment from Baupin such as: “I am on the train and I’d like to sodomise you wearing thigh-high boots.” Baupin resigned this week as deputy speaker of parliament and a judicial preliminary inquiry was opened. His lawyer vehemently denied what he called “mendacious, defamatory and baseless” charges.

Attard said France could no longer let male politicians break the law and harass and assault women every day as if such behaviour were a joke or a form of gallantry. “I hear people using this phrase: ‘Well, it has always been this way in France, you know.’ I don’t believe that. It has to be possible for mentalities to evolve. France is no worse than elsewhere, but other countries deal with it far better than us, denouncing and punishing this as soon as it happens.”

But, we are told, that’s because those other countries are so much more childish and puritanical than France.

The clearest sign that French politics has a problem came on the night the allegations against Baupin broke. Aurore Bergé, a politician for Nicolas Sarkozy’s rightwing party Les Républicains, was at a local council meeting. During a break in the voting session, one male politician told her: “When I see you, I want to do a Baupin to you.” Another politician made an obscene sexual pun on her name.

Bergé denounced this and was interviewed on the main nightly news bulletin by the state broadcaster France 2. After detailing the men’s actions – which fall unambiguously under the French legal definition of sexual harassment – the male journalist interviewing her asked: “Have you ever experienced real harassment?”

It’s good that a man was on hand to keep things in proportion.

Bergé said: “Since I spoke out, dozens and dozens of women told me they have experienced similar harassment but weren’t in the position to speak out – because in France there’s an overriding view that women should laugh it off. And yet what starts with words, then gestures, can escalate to assault.”

Plus the words and gestures are not themselves harmless – they’re a not very subtle way of telling women they’re there not as colleagues but as sex-treats.

A former women’s minister said she had been sexually assaulted by a senator in his office in 1979 and wished she had spoken out earlier.

A former ministerial assistant described how, more recently, aged 25, she had been raped by a superior. A journalist told how a female politician, picking something up from the floor at a local council session, was told salaciously by the mayor: “Ah, you’re going under the desk,” to guffaws from other politicians.

Even this week, when a female MP in parliament raised the issue of harassment, rightwing male MPs began loudly jeering “aaaw” as if to a child. Crucially, after the Baupin allegations broke, Michel Sapin, the Socialist finance minister, apologised for “inappropriate” behaviour towards a journalist last year at Davos as she bent down to pick up a pen. A book had accused Sapin of pinging the journalist’s knicker elastic, but the minister said: “I … put my hand on her back,” insisting it wasn’t harassment.

You know…that’s not about sex, it’s not about pleasure and fun, it’s not about eroticism – it’s about humiliation. Guffaws; jeering; snapping a woman’s underpants because she bends down – that’s childish schoolyard humiliation and bullying. It’s a power trip. It’s an expression of contempt. It’s ugly as fuck.

Far from the notion of a supposed French culture of seduction and sexual conquest, academics say that much of the blame should fall on the plain sexism and inequality of French politics. France is the country that had the biggest gap between all men getting the vote, in 1848, and women being allowed to vote, almost a century later, in 1944. Most political power is still held by men, who have 73% of the seats in parliament.

I guess political power is more of a guy thing.

Caroline De Haas, a high-profile feminist and former government adviser, said sexual harassment was not unique to France, but in French politics it was happening with a sense of impunity and “an absence of understanding of what violence is to women”.

She felt there was at least less jeering from senior men than during the Strauss-Kahn case, when the belittling of rape and sneering sexism of some leading French thinkers became clear. One senior journalist dismissed the alleged attempted rape of the hotel worker as “troussage de domestique”, a phrase suggestive of French aristocrats having non-consensual sex with servants. The criminal charges against Strauss-Kahn were dropped.

The centre-right MP Pierre Lellouche was quoted by RTL radio this week as declining to comment on the Baupin case, saying: “I comment on important matters, not girly stuff.”

And not in front of the servants.

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