In the Middle Ages, French feudal lords bedded the wives of their serfs and called it a nobleman’s right. Nowadays, male executives prey on female employees, but some women are fighting back.
It is a new, difficult battle for French women, 70% of whom work outside the home.
According to a survey by the European Community’s executive commission, 36% of working women in France reported being harassed sexually by bosses or co-workers.
“Sexual harassment has been around for centuries, yet it’s still a taboo subject,” said Marie-Victoire Louis, a sociologist and co-founder of the Assn. to Fight Violence Against Women at Work.
“Any woman who brings charges of sexual harassment against her employer runs the risk of being ridiculed, isolated, not believed, and, naturally, of being fired, if she hasn’t been already.”
Prospects of better treatment on the job are improving for women, who make up 41% of the work force. The National Assembly is working on legislation, expected to pass in the spring, that would make sexual harassment a crime punishable by large fines and prison terms of two to five years.
The government agency that monitors women’s rights is looking for ways of changing labor laws to enable inspectors to intervene in harassment cases and make employers responsible for the security of female workers.
“Only the employer can put an end to sexual harassment,” Louis said. “By law, employers are required to provide working conditions which respect the employees’ health and safety, and that includes an environment free of sexual harassment.”
She said the campaign against sexual harassment got an unexpected boost from a satirical film about two female postal workers who turn the system to their advantage.
“Promotion Canape” (Couch Promotion), written and directed by Didier Kaminka, has attracted about 1 million viewers since it opened in October. Xavier Gelin, the producer, said negotiations were under way for a Hollywood remake.
“For me, sexual harassment can be defined as repeated advances that end up turning into blackmail,” Kaminka said in an interview. “Sexual harassment is rampant when there’s high unemployment and young, inexperienced women without specialized training are afraid to lose their jobs.”
Kaminka said he spent four months inside the postal service, where he found the expression “couch promotion” to be part of the vernacular. One scene shows actress Grace de Capitani obtaining a desirable apartment from the postal service’s housing administrator only after promising sex.
“Officials said publicly that everything in the film is fiction, but I can tell you it’s all true,” Kaminka said.
Louis criticized the film for playing down the violence that accompanies many acts of sexual harassment.
In her small office in eastern Paris, she pointed to a pile of dossiers of women who had been abused verbally and physically, beaten and raped by their male employers.
She described Mrs. A., a dental assistant who submitted to her boss’s repeated advances because she had an unemployed husband and a baby. When she finally rejected him, he reduced her salary, bullied her and slapped her.
Charged with assault, he denied sexual harassment and said Mrs. A. had consented to his attentions. She later withdrew the charges in exchange for a letter of dismissal and 40,000 francs ($8,000) in damages.
Another case involved Mrs. B., 24, hired by a town official who abused, threatened, raped and blackmailed her for two years.
Mrs. B. finally went to authorities and the official was charged with several sex and assault offenses involving other women, including a minor.