FILE - In this May 17, 2012 file photo newly named Housing Minister Cecile Duflot, wearing denim trousers, arrives for the first weekly cabinet meeting with new President Francois Hollande, at the Elysee Palace in Paris. The hooting and catcalls on Duflot began as soon as she stood, wearing a blue and white flowered dress. It did not cease for the entire time she spoke before France's National Assembly. And it came not from an unruly crowd, but from male legislators who later said they were merely showing their appreciation on a warm summer's day. French lawmakers are nearing passage of a law on sexual harassment, more than two months after the country's previous one was thrown out by a court, and all pending cases along with it. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)
PARIS (AP) — The hooting and catcalls began as soon as the Cabinet minister stood, wearing a blue and white flowered dress. It did not cease for the entire time she spoke before France's National Assembly. And they came not from an unruly crowd, but from male legislators who later said they were merely showing their appreciation on a warm summer's day.
Cecile Duflot, the Housing minister, faltered very slightly, then continued with her prepared remarks to the Assembly.
"Ladies and gentlemen, but above all the gentlemen, obviously," she said in a firm voice as hoots rang out. She completed the statement on her ministry and again sat down. None of the men in suits who preceded her got the same treatment from the deputies.
The same French Assembly on Tuesday is expected to take up a new law on sexual harassment, more than two months after a court struck down the previous statute, saying it was too vague and failed to protect women. In the meantime, there has been nothing. All cases that were pending when the law was struck down May 4 were thrown out. And, without a law, there were no new cases.
"Women will no longer be without protection, that's the most important thing," said Asma Guenifi, president of the feminist group Neither Prostitutes nor Doormats. But Guenifi said she had reservations about the replacement law, primarily its maximum punishment of three years in prison and the three escalating categories of harassment.
"My fear today is that this new law won't be clear enough, protective enough or global enough," Guenifi said. "Ideally there would be one law, one definition of sexual harassment. All victims should be able to find themselves in this law, without resorting to categories and levels. "
The new legislation will extend to cover offences in universities, in the housing market and job interviews, and is intended to punish single acts of sexual blackmail as sexual harassment — previously only covering repeated acts. The government, keenly aware of the lack of protection since the May 4 court decision, has pressed for a quick vote. It has already passed the Senate.
But in a culture where hissing at women on the street is considered a sign of approval and sexual banter is often a workplace norm, Guenifi said the law could be a hard sell for women under pressure to keep their jobs in a difficult economy. Especially coming from the same group of lawmakers who last week disrupted a normally routine presentation from government ministers.
Guenifi said the reaction to Duflot in the July 17 Assembly session was disappointing, but unsurprising.
"We knew that sexism and machismo touches all socioeconomic classes, but it's very sad because everyone can identify with it, saying, 'Even there they don't respect women,'" she said.
Duflot - who came under criticism after wearing jeans to her first Cabinet meeting this year - said she was shocked at the reaction last week in the Assembly.
"I worked in the building and construction sector, and I never saw that. It says something about certain deputies. It means something about certain deputies. I think about their wives. I think about all the men who aren't like that," Duflot said later in an interview with the French television network RTL.
One of the male deputies was unrepentant, denying the outburst was intended to be offensive: "We weren't booing or whistling at Cecile Duflot. We were admiring," Patrick Balkany, of the opposition UMP, told the newspaper Figaro. "It's possible to look at a woman with interest without it being machismo."
A female UMP deputy was more perturbed by the outburst.
"It's a way of not taking women's voices into consideration, to deny your work or your role," Francoise de Panafieu, whose mother Helene Missoffe was a junior minister in the 1970s as well as an Assembly deputy. "Since my mother, the place of women in politics has not budged."
The new sexual harassment law, which was passed by the Senate last week, is supposed to address problems in France that many say have been going on for as long as women have been a big part of the workforce. It sets three levels of harassment, with the most serious punishable by three years in prison. Among the circumstances that merit the most severe punishment: if the harasser has authority over the victim, if the victim is younger than 15, or if multiple people carry out the harassment.
Guenifi listed acts that would draw the most lenient, one-year punishment, including repeated gestures, discourse, or other sexually suggestive actions intended to create a hostile or intimidating environment.
"All that, and one year of prison?" she asked. "It's scandalous, truly scandalous."
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