President Macron has proclaimed that gender equality is “la grand cause” of his five-year term as president of France. When his party came to office last summer, the number of French female MPs increased by 50%, and about half the ministers in his government are women. (Although those hoping for a female prime minister were disappointed).
Now, the grand strategy is starting to materialise into real policy. In recent weeks, Macron and his government – including the 35-year-old gender equality minister Marlène Schiappa – have announced a striking set of new initiatives that will be written into law in the coming months.
Pushing companies to close the gender pay gap
French companies are required by law to have a gender equality strategy, and Schiappa has named and shamed a dozen companies that fail to do so. The percentage wage difference between French men and women with similar positions, education and experience is 9%, and the society-wide pay gap between men and women is as much as 25%.
Now, unions and employers have been told that French companies must eliminate their gender pay gaps within three years – or face potential fines of up to 1% of the total wages they pay their employees.
Companies with more than 50 employees will be required to install new software linked to their payroll to monitor inequality in pay. The goal is for larger firms – those with more than 250 employees – to be using the software next year, and for all companies of more than 50 staff to be using it by 2020. Similar software tools are already in use in Switzerland and Luxembourg.
The government also plans to step up its random inspections of companies in order to enforce compliances with the laws. This bill follows Iceland, which in early 2018 passed the world’s first law requiring companies to prove to the government they pay employees equally, or be fined. Firms there must go through audits and receive certification that they pay the same for the same work, or risk fines of around $475 a day for failing to comply.
“No employers want to discriminate, but the structures exist in a way that they do – it is simply a result of the unconscious gender bias in our societies,” Rósa Erlingsdóttir, a Senior Advisor at Iceland’s Ministry of Welfare, told Apolitical.
Fines for sexist comments and street harassment
Schiappa has also been a supporter of the #BalanceTonPorc (expose your pig) campaign – the French version of #metoo, which calls on women to identify their harassers. In the wake of this movement, she will now present a sweeping new law targeting sexual violence and harassment in the Council of Ministers on March 21.
One major part of that bill that has been announced is the introduction a €90 fine ($110) for sexist remarks and gestures in public places and street harassment. The on-the-spot fines could rise to as much as €750 ($930), depending on how quickly the perpetrator pays up.
The government spokesperson cited a 2016 survey in which nine out of 10 French female public transport users said they had suffered harassment, including wolf whistling, comments on their appearance, insistent stares or someone pressing up against them. The Paris metro has since started to inform riders of emergency numbers to call or text to report incidents.
However, the government has not made clear how the policy will be enforced, and experiences from other countries with similar laws – like Belgium and Portugal – point to potential challenges.
In Belgium, a law against sexism in public spaces was passed in 2014 following an outcry over a documentary that exposed the abuse faced by women on the streets of Brussels. Offenders have, since then, risked fines or up to a year in jail, but last week was the first time that an offender had actually been convicted under the law. A man who verbally abused a female police officer was handed a fine of €3,000 ($3,700) by a Brussels criminal court, and warned that a failure to pay would lead to a month in prison.
Creating an age of consent
A second flagship part of the upcoming effort to tackle sexual violence was also recently announced. The French government has planned to create an age of consent of 15 years old, meaning that children and adolescents below that age cannot, regardless of circumstances, consent to sex.
Currently, French law says that any sexual act by an adult with a child under 15 can be prosecuted as a sexual offence. But for the act to count as rape, prosecutors have to prove that the sex with the child was forced: there is no presumption of coercion if a minor is involved.
Schiappa said last week that the move comes after public outcry around two cases of sex involving 11-year-old girls, in which two men escaped rape charges. In one case, a 29-year-old was acquitted of rape because there was no evidence that the 11-year-old was coerced. The decision has since been referred to a higher court.
Most countries in Europe, including Spain, Belgium, Britain, Switzerland, Denmark and Austria, already have a legal age of consent, mostly ranging from between 14 and 16 years of age. In the UK, the age of consent is 16, and courts follow “an irrefutable presumption of an absence of consent” in cases of sex with children below that age.
(Picture credit: Getty)