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article imageFrance fights sexual violence on public transport

By Fran Blandy (AFP)     Nov 9, 2015 in World

France launched an awareness campaign Monday in a bid to halt the crude comments, groping and sexual violence that women face daily on public transport.

Posters went up at stations around the country with fictitious metro stops labelled with comments such as: "Hello Mademoiselle. You're lovely. Let's get to know each other. Is that short skirt for me?"

The remarks get increasingly aggressive from "You're hot, you're turning me on. Answer me, dirty bitch" to "Stop - that is enough".

The scenario is one of several on posters at bus, train and metro stations that the government hopes will raise awareness about sexual harassment, a global problem which has prompted similar campaigns in major cities from New York to London.

"A woman's daily life should not look like this," reads a line at the bottom of the poster.

Women are advised how to react, such as urging fellow passengers to look up from their smartphones and step in, to reminding their aggressor that touching them in an inappropriate manner can land them up to five years in prison.

"The aim is to give everyone the tools to react. To change behaviour so that no aggression is trivialised," said a statement from the women's rights ministry.

The campaign, also rolled out on social media, is part of French government efforts to tackle a problem which an official report in April described as "massive, violent and having significant negative impacts."

Demonstrators paste flyers on walls as they take part in a protest against sexual and verbal harassm...
Demonstrators paste flyers on walls as they take part in a protest against sexual and verbal harassment, on April 25, 2014, in Paris
Franck Fife, AFP/File

It reminds travellers that cat-calls and comments on a woman's appearance are unacceptable, while threats, public masturbation, or rubbing up against a woman on public transport are punishable by heavy fines or prison time.

The government launched a national plan to combat sexual harassment in July, after an increased focus on the problem in recent years.

Twitter campaigns such as #takebackthemetro and another targeting sexual harassment on the street, took off in 2014 as activists urged the government to act.

- Flirting or harassment? -

April's report, ordered by Women's Minister Marisol Touraine found that 100 percent of a group of 600 women interviewed had experienced sexual harassment on public transport at some point in their lives.

French Minister of Social Affairs  Health and Women’s Rights  Marisol Touraine addresses lawmakers...
French Minister of Social Affairs, Health and Women’s Rights, Marisol Touraine addresses lawmakers during a session of questions to the government at the National Assembly on October 21, 2015 in Paris
Jacques Demarthon, AFP/File

One challenge to combatting sexual harassment is how many see forceful come-ons as nothing more than flirting, while cat-calling is laughed off.

After the report on sexual harassment was published, French businesswoman Sophie de Menthon created an uproar after tweeting that it was "rather nice" to be whistled at.

The hashtag #plutotsympa (rather nice) went viral with women sarcastically tweeting: "We're not going to lie, getting rubbed up against on the Metro is #plutotsympa".

Rima Achtouk of the activist group Osez le Feminisme (Dare to be Feminist), which launched the Take Back the Metro campaign, said harassment comes into play when the feeling is not reciprocated.

"In the case of flirting there is reciprocity. With harassment the woman has no desire to interact and the aggressor is perfectly aware of that, and continues."

She told AFP that harassment was so bad in France that it had come to be seen as normal.

"It is trivialised and completely accepted. When we are faced with sexual harassment it is very complicated to react, both for the victim and the witnesses," she said.

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