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Public Reaction Signals Improvement In How French Culture Views Workplace Sexual Harassment


Five years ago this month, Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of assaulting a New York hotel maid. The head of the International Monetary Fund was never convicted, but the scandal exposed a culture of sexual harassment toward women among rich and powerful men in France.

This week, two more French politicians are under fire for alleged sexual harassment. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, this time their signs have changed.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Angry women and some men gathered outside the French lower house of Parliament this week to protest politicians' abuse of power. The protests came after Finance Minister Michel Sapin apologized for inappropriately touching a female journalist.

On Monday, vice president of the National Assembly, Denis Baupin, was forced to step down from his position and is under investigation after being accused of sexual harassment by eight women. Sandrine Rousseau, spokeswoman for the French Green Party, says she was one of his victims in 2011.

SANDRINE ROUSSEAU: (Through interpreter) I was leading a meeting. And I came out into the hallway for a break. Denis Baupin grabbed me by my breasts and slammed me up against the wall and tried to kiss me. I pushed him away, but I was so shocked I couldn't even speak.

BEARDSLEY: Rousseau says she didn't file a complaint at the time because she says she felt fragile, guilty and alone and didn't want to jeopardize her career. But now, there are signs that the culture is changing. This week, newspaper Liberation printed a front-page call for lifting the silence around sexual harassment and attached 500 supporting signatures from prominent men and women. Prominent feminist Caroline de Haas says harassment and violence against women in France continues but public reaction is beginning to change.

CAROLINE HAAS: Today, we have a lot of positive reaction. People will say it's a good thing that the women speak. We support these women. And sexual harassment is a very bad thing. You know, there is a change in the French society about that.

BEARDSLEY: But freelance media producer Sarah-Lou Lepers says culture in the French workplace still has a long way to go. She says despite some progress, sexual comments and off-color jokes about women are still rampant. And it's difficult, especially as a young woman, to know how to respond. She was shocked by a comment made to her in a meeting recently.

SARAH-LOU LEPERS: I think what's happening right now in France helps me know who I want to be and how I want to react because that's what I will say in the next meeting that may change something or help that guy or another guy understand that's not a joke. That's sexist.

BEARDSLEY: Lepers says even after everything that happened this week, one older colleague simply could not understand that telling a woman you'd like to make love to her is not a compliment. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.