- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 24, 2012

PARIS — 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 one day last week. The heckling 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 about an urban development project in Paris.

“Ladies and gentlemen, but mostly 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 lawmakers, and the reaction was extraordinary enough to draw television commentary and headlines for days afterward.

On Tuesday, the same French assembly that heckled Ms. Duflot took 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. All cases that were pending when the law was struck down May 4 were thrown out.

Under the new proposal, sexual harassment will be a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison. In the United States, it’s a civil offense usually punishable by fines.

“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.

Ms. 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,” she 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 offenses in universities, in the housing market and job interviews, and is intended to punish single acts of sexual blackmail as sexual harassment. The old law covered 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.

In a culture where hissing at women on the street is considered a sign of approval and sexual banter is often a workplace norm, the law could be a hard sell for women under pressure to keep their jobs in a difficult economy, Ms Guenifi said. Especially coming from the same group of lawmakers who last week disrupted a normally routine presentation on other issues from government ministers.

Ms. Guenifi said the reaction to Ms. Duflot in the July 17 assembly session was disappointing but not surprising.

“We knew that sexism and machismo touches all socioeconomic classes, but it’s very sad because everyone can identify with it, saying, ‘Even there [in the assembly], they don’t respect women,’” she said.

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