On Thursday, July 26, a woman named Marie Laguerre was walking home on the Boulevard de la Villette in the 19th arrondissement of Paris, when something awful—but very common—happened. A man she didn’t know started making degrading sexual comments to her on the street.
But in this case, the altercation turned violent. When Marie responded to the man who was verbally harassing her, he turned back and threw an ashtray at her. When it missed, he slapped her, in broad daylight, in front of dozens of witnesses sitting on the terrace of a cafe.
Street harassment is, sadly, a regular occurrence in France. A recent survey measured the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse in French society by interviewing a nationally-representative sample of 2,000 French women ages 15 and over. It found that, over the course of their lifetime, eight out of 10 French women had experienced at least one form of sexual assault or street/public transportation harassment. The survey also found that street harassment isn’t limited to suggestive comments or inappropriate whistling: 41% of French women have suffered from forced sexual contact in a public place.
Perhaps that’s why the video of Laguerre’s attack has gone viral in France. Clearly, it’s struck a chord with the many people there who have experienced street harassment or abuse—and it comes on the heels of a major governmental reform in France, spearheaded by the minister of equality, Marlène Schiappa, which aims to change the way the country punishes different forms of violence against women and gender inequality.
One part of this reform aims to eradicate street harassment by criminalizing it. Starting in the fall, incidences of street harassment–defined as following someone, “upskirting,” asking intrusive and repeated questions, whistling in a suggestive way, or making a sexist comment–will be punished with fines ranging from €90 for a first offense to €3,000 for repeated offenders and aggravating circumstances (such as when the victim is a minor).
The government’s proposal is up for a vote this week, and there’s no doubt that this incident will play a part in the discourse surrounding the bill. Marlène Schiappa has stated her support for Laguerre. In an interview with French magazine Le Parisien, she said that this vote was about no more or less than “the freedom of women to move freely in the public space.”
Since the incident, Marie has filed a former complaint with the police. Her attack was caught on video and witnessed by dozens of people, many of whom rushed to her defense and have since agreed to testify on her behalf.
That’s the best-case scenario. But street harassment and violence happens to thousands of anonymous victims every day around the world, and in most cases, the victims don’t get justice and the perpetrators don’t face the consequences. And a quick look at the comments under the video of the Laguerre incident on YouTube reveals a depressing reality: There’s a long way to go to when it comes to convincing the world that abusers, not victims, deserve the blame for these types of attacks.
One YouTube user writes, “before, any woman dressed like that would have been arrested for indecency. … Marie Laguerre was not ‘dignified’ at all, because a dignified woman dresses decently, not like a prostitute.” Another echoes the age-old accusation levied against abuse victims, saying that “If he beat her it means that she deserved it.”
In her own recollection of events on her Facebook page, Marie says that her experience wasn’t an isolated incident. “Harassment is a daily occurrence. Those men who think they are all allowed everything in the street, who allow themselves to humiliate us, and who can’t stand being offended, are unacceptable. It is time for this kind of behavior to end.” Let’s hope she is right.