France should follow America's lead on sexual harassment
Abigail C. Saguy is an associate professor of sociology at UCLA and the author of "What is Sexual Harassment?: From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne" (University of California Press, 2003). She is currently in Paris as part of an exchange program with the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.
Ever since International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) was charged with the sexual assault of a housekeeper in a New York hotel, the scandal has dominated public discourse here in France in much the same way that the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas scandal dominated American discussions 20 years ago.
And just as the hearings that preceded Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination turned into a lesson in sexual harassment for the American public, the scandal involving the man many assumed would be the next French president presents France with a much needed teachable moment. The country has much to learn from the ways America has created a climate in which sexual harassment is taken seriously.
It is unlikely that a hotel housekeeper in France would have brought sexual assault charges against such a powerful politician. She would have been restrained by legitimate concerns that her complaint would not be taken seriously. Yet until quite recently it is also unlikely that a room attendant would have leveled such charges in the United States. The cultural shift in contemporary America can be attributed in large part to changes in legal and corporate approaches to sexual harassment.
American corporate sexual harassment policies have often been dismissed as window dressing, designed to protect against liability rather than to effectively root out sexual harassment. Yet, such polices have increased the probability that a housekeeper would believe she has a right to work without being sexually assaulted, and that a claim of sexual assault would be taken seriously by her employer and by the police. This new American legal and cultural climate is very different from its French counterpart.
It is widely assumed that the French are more sexually permissive and that Americans are more "puritanical." Nevertheless, since the early 1990s, French law has recognized sexual harassment as a misdemeanor, with possible sanctions for individual harassers including not only fines but also jail time. Yet, for reasons that have little to do with sexual permissiveness and everything to do with legal and political history, French employers are not held liable — as they are in the U.S. — for sexual harassment occurring in their workplaces.
In the United States, unlike in France, civil courts can order employers to pay the victim both compensatory damages and also punitive damages, which are intentionally large sums of money so as to have a deterrent effect. In an effort to protect themselves from such extensive financial liability, American corporations have developed comprehensive internal regulations, designed to prevent and address possible cases of sexual harassment.
Facing no comparable liability risk, French corporations have taken no comparable measures. Without a financial incentive, French employers have been understandably slow to develop internal regulations or even to see sexual harassment in the workplace as their problem.
When asked about what they would do if an employee reported that a supervisor or coworker had sexually harassed her or him, French human resource managers typically say that they would encourage the employee to file charges but that it is not up to them to enforce the law.
Nor do French human relations officials see it as their obligation to create a workplace environment that is free from harassment. Indeed, they are quick to criticize American approaches to sexual harassment as exaggerated and fear that replicating such policies in France would cast an unwanted pall over French workplaces.
This reluctance to embrace corporate responsibility for a hostile work environment has social consequences that reverberate well beyond individual workplaces. In a nutshell, the message that sexual harassment and sexual violence are intolerable has not been transmitted in France to the same degree that it has in the United States.
These legal differences are deeply entrenched in American and French legal systems. However, the current DSK scandal illustrates that France needs to take a page from America’s playbook on sexual harassment. Let’s hope the French jump at the opportunity.