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Europeanization or National Specificity? Legal Approaches to Sexual Harassment in France, 2002–2012




Sexual harassment represents a massive problem for working women worldwide. A recent social media campaign has brought increased awareness to this fact. In late 2017—after three-dozen women accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault, or rape—millions of women posted “Me Too” on Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Taking inspiration from African American activist Tarana Burke—who, in 2007, started an offline “Me Too” campaign to let sex abuse survivors know that they were not alone—actress Alyssa Milano launched this online Me Too campaign to shift the focus from Weinstein to victims. She hoped this would “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”[1] While some posted simply, “Me Too,” others provided wrenching detail about abuse they had sometimes never before shared publicly. In France, a similar social media campaign flourished, under the hashtag “balance ton porc,” loosely translated as “squeal on your pig.” Following these public accusations, we have seen a wave of dismissals and resignations from powerful men in industries ranging from Hollywood to government. While it is unclear whether this social media campaign will produce systemic changes that will make sexual harassment less likely to occur or easier to remedy, it is highlighting the magnitude of the problem.

In “Europeanization or National Specificity?: Legal Approaches to Sexual Harassment in France Since 2002,” I consider the legal resources French women can use when they have been sexually harassed and how these have changed since 2002, in response to legal pressures from the European Union. I further consider how news reporting on high-profile cases of sexual harassment, assault, or rape—and specifically a 2011 case involving French politician Dominique Strauss Kahn—shape judges’ and lawyers’ attitudes about the credibility of women who claim to have been sexually harassed.

I find that a 2002 European Directive on sexual harassment has created more favorable conditions for sexual harassment victims in Labor Court by, for instance, shifting the burden of proof toward defendants and creating an institution that is empowered to investigate sexual harassment complaints and assist plaintiffs’ lawyers. It also informed a 2012 French sexual harassment law—a marked improvement over the earlier law, repealed that same year.

Yet, unlike in the United States, French lawyers, activists, and politicians alike remain committed to the notion that sexual harassment is a misdemeanor to be addressed via criminal law and not solely civil law. This poses an obstacle for sexual harassment victims since it is exceedingly difficult to win sexual harassment cases in criminal court—due to stringent standards of proof, among other factors. Moreover, persistent sexism leads judges to trivialize sexual harassment, imagine that women who wear certain clothes are asking to be sexual harassed or assaulted, and assume that women who file sexual harassment charges are lying.

Still, I find some evidence that recent media scandals may be making a difference. While the research conducted for this paper was completed before the online Me Too campaign, French lawyers and activists said that the high-profile media reporting of sexual assault charges against French politician Dominique Strauss Kahn in 2011 made judges less likely to dismiss sexual harassment charges out of hand. As an activist put it, the case showed French people that “even if you are very powerful… you can get caught.” Even if the Me Too campaign does not produce systemic changes that make sexual harassment less likely to occur or easier to remedy, it may still help if potential harassers take this message to heart.



[1] Sandra E. Garcia, "The Woman Who Created #Metoo Long before Hashtags," The New York Times, October 20 2017. Associated Press, "More Than 12m "Me Too" Facebook Posts, Comments, Reactions in 24 Hours," news release, October 17, 2017, http://cbsn.ws/2ypyCET.

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