PARIS, France (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 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 deputies, and the reaction was extraordinary enough to draw television commentary and headlines for days afterward.
The same French Assembly yesterday 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.
Under the new proposal, sexual harassment will be a criminal offense, punishable by up to three years in prison. In the US, 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. 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 offenses 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. The Assembly has 153 women out of 577 deputies.
"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. The Assembly is notoriously macho, despite increasing numbers of female deputies, but presentations by the Cabinet are usually respectful affairs.
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 conservative opposition UMP, told the newspaper Figaro. "It's possible to look at a woman with interest without it being machismo."
Balkany suggested Duflot wore the boldly printed — but otherwise chaste-looking — dress "so that we wouldn't listen to what she has to say."
Another deputy, Jacques Myard, told L'Express that the hoots were a way of "paying homage to this woman's beauty."