Skip to main content

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 It also informed a 2012 French sexual harassment law—a marked improvement over the earlier law, repealed that same year.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,

Popular posts from this blog

On writing

By Susan Sterett
Law & Society Review Co-Editor

One thing I know for sure after having co-edited Law and Society Review for almost three years is that just about every college and university would like more publications from faculty members. Many colleges and universities around the world want people to write for peer-reviewed journals, so like other journals, Law and Society Review has been getting an increasing number of submissions. Some journals have big backlogs. Some journals have stopped accepting submissions. Everyone is overwhelmed with content. How can you prepare your paper for LSR? This post will point to a few resources that could help, based in my experience from editing, conversations with other editors, and my conversations at the wonderful 2017 sociolegal studies early career workshop at the University of Cape Town. All have made me rethink how I submit to journals.

A few thoughts, most of which are readily found on the internet. Even so, many people may no…

Law & Society Review is pleased to announce two opportunities for scholars who are from or who write about the Global South. Both opportunities have early January deadlines.

The first opportunity is the Sociolegal Studies Early Career Writing Workshop, March 21-23, 2019, at the University of Cape Town. This intensive workshop, co-sponsored by Law & Society Review, is for a small group of early career scholars from any university in Africa to receive feedback on papers in progress and mentoring on writing/publishing processes. The goal is to help one another toward writing goals and publication. The Workshop will cover travel expenses and accommodation. Applications (including draft paper and letter of reference) are due January 14, 2019. For details, please visit the Early Career Workshop website here. For additional questions, contact

Another opportunity is the Law and Society in Africa conference, April 1-3, 2019, organized by American University Cairo's Law & Society Research Unit. The first Law and Society in Africa Conference, held in South Africa in 2016, was a great success, with more than 100 attendees…

How do text messages complicate contemporary sexual assault adjudication?

By Heather Hlavka and Sameena Mulla 
Department of Social and Cultural Sciences, Marquette University

“There’s no video, no injury. It’s purely one hundred percent ‘he said, she said.’ They had a terrible relationship. They were nasty to each other and they don’t get along well, probably never will. But there is no evidence to support the state’s case, other than their words.” Our article, “’That’s How She Talks’: Animating Text Message Evidence in the Sexual Assault Trial,” begins with these familiar words offered by a defense attorney during a sexual assault trial in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The oft-invoked trope of “he said, she said” in cases of sexual violence suggests that without third-party eye witness testimony or material evidence, sexual assault allegations rest on conflicting reports provided by victims, the accused, and other witnesses. But how do trial attorneys reinvent this trope when the words of the witnesses are preserved as text messages?

Text messages are recorded co…