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Editorials Globe editorial: Vive la France, where catcalling will soon be illegal

France’s answer to the MeToo movement rallied under the vivid hashtag BalanceTonPorc, or Out Your Pig.

Now its government has acknowledged that the pigs in women’s lives sometimes are, in fact, out in the open.

Last week, the French Senate passed a piece of legislation targeting all kinds of sexual abuse, from the exploitation of minors to “upskirting” photos. But the most discussed and most celebrated aspect of the law, which comes into effect next month, goes after street harassment. In effect, catcalling will soon be illegal in France.

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Marlène Schiappa, France’s gender equality minister, explained that the new law bans “insulting, intimidating, threatening and following women in public spaces,” acts that are punishable by on-the-spot fines of up to €750.

The legislation had been in the works for months, but its passage came just days after a video surfaced showing a young woman being punched in the face for telling off her harasser. She has since spoken forcefully about the barrage of sexual harassment French women face while walking down the street. Putting an end to that kind of public sexual degradation is a goal anyone can get behind.

Yes, the French approach poses problems of enforcement and interpretation.

Belgium waited until this year for the first conviction under its 2014 anti-sexism law, designed chiefly to prevent street harassment. The perp verbally abused a female cop; it will be harder to stop catcalls directed at women who aren’t carrying handcuffs and a badge.

Defining what counts as sexual harassment in public is tricky, too. Hurling sexist epithets at passing women or describing sex acts to them are obvious cases. On the other hand, Ms. Schiappa has said she doesn’t think calling a woman “cute” should count. Well, couldn’t that be intimidating, at night, in a darkened alley? And who will decide?

These are interesting questions, but somewhat beside the point. No truly innocent behaviour is at risk of being penalized. Unsolicited comments of a sexual nature are never welcome, even if some are less disturbing than others. If banning them, with a pretty mild sanction, makes men think twice before catcalling, so much the better.

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