The Vagenda

Harassment on the Streets of Paris – Why is it Worse Than in the UK?

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At a dinner party on Sunday night, the conversation turned towards street harassment in Paris, or harassment de rue. A friend, Mary, recounted the previous evening’s events. She’d had a great night but it had been spoilt by an incident on her way home. A man had followed her from the metro, offering to walk her home. She’d refused, saying that she knew her way and that she didn’t know him and so did not want him to continue walking with her. He insisted, saying that the area wasn’t safe. Mary got her phone out and threatened to call the police if he didn’t leave her alone. He said he’d leave her if she gave him a kiss. She refused and eventually he left when she started dialling the police’s number. The saddest thing about this story for me is that thanks to this man now Mary probably doesn’t feel as safe in her area as she did previously.

It sounds as though Mary managed to stay very calm and collected. Had I been in that situation, I don’t know if I would have been able to do the same. ‘You’d only make the situation worse’, I can hear people say.  But how many times am I meant to experience this type of behaviour before I’m allowed to get angry ? Why is it always the ‘victim’ in these situations who must remain rational and in control? It’s easier said than done, too. L’esprit de l’escalier, a French saying meaning ‘staircase wit’, refers to how it’s always afterwards that you think of the perfect response. In the moment, the shock of being harassed often means that words or actions fail you.

Last week, I asked for my brother’s opinion on another article I had written about life in Paris. I’d written that I get cat-called or harassed on a daily basis. He said I could only write that if it was true and for a moment I had a wobble and was filled with doubt. Later on I went about my day and had two unpleasant experiences in the street with men. Had my brother not raised the question earlier, I would not have remembered either of these incidents. That’s not to say that street harassment is harmless because women are used to it; instead these ‘interactions’ form part of a heavy burden that women must bear every time they go out in public. Whenever I step out of my front door now I wear invisible blinkers as a survival strategy.  Thanks to this, I think that about half of the street harassment aimed at me will go straight over my head, so the suggestion I’m being paranoid is ridiculous. The defensive bubble around me protects me from the less intrusive behaviours.

Without this bubble I wouldn’t be able to face going outside alone anymore. It’s a coping mechanism. It means not making eye contact with people, dressing in a manner that does not stand out from the crowd, etc. And this is sad as it restricts women’s life chances. As my friend Carys, a fellow newcomer to Paris, put it, “far from finding a new independent confidence in the city, an opportunity to embark on life as an individual and not shrouded by a comfort blanket of friends; I am finding myself more withdrawn than ever. And it’s a lose, lose situation! I avoid eye contact, dampen my spirits to appear less approachable and more serious and yet this tactic often attracts adverse attention – I look simply too miserable to be pretty! Men must intersect my path to make me look up in surprise, inform me that I am beautiful and ordering me to smile.”

Every other woman at the dinner had a similar story to share from that week. Being grabbed by men in the street outside a busy restaurant. Men putting their hands between girls’ legs in a nightclub. One friend had a guy run up to her in the street and scream in her face and then walk off laughing. All these small (or not so small) acts of intimidation add up to ensure that women do not feel safe going about their daily lives. The message from men is that your body is not your own and I can touch it when I like. Don’t get too comfortable  – the threat of danger and violence is never far from the surface. As a foreigner it adds another level of anxiety. In that moment after the verbal/physical/sexual harassment it’s often difficult to speak full stop, let alone summon what you’d like to say in a different language.

Why is this happening in Paris more than in the UK? This is not an issue specific to Paris and yet I have French friends who have spent time in the UK and British friends currently living in Paris and both are in agreement that the problem is much worse here. I’ve started to question everything. I’m blonde and that hair colour is a little rarer here and so I stand out a bit more. Could that be the reason why? Although that wouldn’t explain the harassment experienced by my darker-haired friends. Am I dressing differently? Like the above, this should be totally irrelevant but the fact is that it isn’t and anyway I dress the same as I have done for years – with only my face and hands visible.

Could it just be that attitudes towards women are different in France than they are in the UK? In the Global Gender Gap Report 2013 rankings the UK came 18th and France came in 45th, Germany 14th and Spain 17th, so at a political policy level at least, France is quite a way behind its neighbouring countries. I’m not for a second suggesting that street harassment is a thing of the past in the UK but the work of campaigns such as Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates has opened up a dialogue. In the UK cat-calling and other forms of street harassment can no longer be passed off as a little bit of fun; just lads having a laugh. I can tell my friends about the creeps in the white van (I know, such a clichéd scenario, and yet it continues) and everyone collectively groans in understanding.

France is beginning to have this conversation too. Only a few days ago one of the country’s biggest newspapers Le Figaro ran a story titled Harcèlement de rue : l’épidémie mondiale or ‘Street Harassment: the global epidemic’. Annoyingly, on the website this story is located on the madame pages, which suggests that it is only viewed as a womens’ problem. It may be a poor translation but the article also says, “subway cars and taxis for women exist in many cities to fight against insecurity of women in transportation”, the message that these schemes send are that women must change their behaviour to accommodate men’s. It’s concerning that France may be adopting this attitude too.

The French news recently picked up the story from the UK, about how Transport Minister Claire Perry has suggested that women-only London underground carriages would reduce the number of sexual assaults. The notion is classic victim blaming. If a women accidently sat in the wrong carriage would she have been asking for it? Do men not commit sexual assault outside of the underground anymore?  If Paris adopted single sex carriages I would simply stop using the metro. Would I then be looked down upon for taking the mixed-gender bus? Further research is also required into the everyday reality of life for women in France. The Le Figaro article states that ’20% of French women are insulted at least once a year’ on the street. This is a huge underestimation; try more like at least once a week.

Of course, it has crossed my mind that men are able to tell that my expat friends and I are not French and therefore we’re easier targets for these behaviours. So I asked one of my French friends if she has similar problems and of course she said yes. “I’ve mainly been verbally harassed  but recently I’ve been ass-grabbed, arm-grabbed, pulled towards him for a kiss etc. They just see us as objects of desire and haven’t been taught not to act upon that desire. Or they don’t give a fuck.” Since she has also lived in the UK, I asked where she felt the problem was worse. “Definitely Paris”, came the reply. Slowly  the issue is emerging in the collective French consciousness. There is now a campaign titled Stop harcèlement de rue! and through traditional media and social media they’re spreading the word in France that, ”this is not humor, it is not compliments…Many women learn to lower their heads, not to answer, cross the street or dress differently. In short, they feel less safe, less autonomous. Out of fear, they become less open to real encounters…and that’s a shame.” But this is the beginning of a long hard road to get street harassment recognised as a real problem which negatively impacts both women and men.

So far I’ve only been living in Paris for around six weeks and so for this observation to stand out against all the other daily new experiences speaks volumes about the seriousness of the problem. During my first week here, I had to take a train to the South of France. I’d just spent the previous month travelling around Europe alone and thought nothing of it. On the train I sat next to a girl; an ingrained habit – like walking home with my keys in my hand. At some point on the journey, two men sat opposite us. I was watching something on my laptop and happened to glance up and realise that the guys were taking photos of the girl next to me. She was either oblivious or doing a great job of ignoring them. Before I had the chance to stop myself I shouted, “No, stop. Don’t do that. That’s not okay”. From the looks on their faces I could tell that they didn’t understand but I had just made myself their next target. They started taking my photo and I just kept quiet and my head down. Everything that I wanted to say I couldn’t think how to say in French. I was bursting with anger, mostly at myself for my lack of French vocabulary.

Learning the language of the country where I live is my responsibility, but the French government has a responsibility to ensure that its citizens are safe. I’ve quickly learnt that the word I was looking for is arrêt and it simply means ‘stop’.  This is the start of my ARRÊT campaign. I refuse to let this dominate my experience of living in Paris any longer.

- Evie Sargeant

24 thoughts on “Harassment on the Streets of Paris – Why is it Worse Than in the UK?

  1. This is a great article. I used to live in Paris and had the exact same problem. I learned that when I spoke about being harassed in the street daily many people either thought I was exaggerating or thought a lot of myself. It is horrible and is part of the reason I didn’t stay. I then moved to Sweden and in 7 months have been harassed once. It makes such a difference to my peace of mind.

    • I lived in Lyon and must say I found when I was out with my (male) friends I did not encounter any comments. However on my own I became very much a target for them. Even recently, here in the UK while I was at work, a white van entered the yard where I was inspecting a van (I work in fleet management) and felt it appropriate to make lewd hand gestures and call me nosy because I had the audacity to ask them what they were doing. In that moment I became very aware that all I had was a walkie talkie type phone and I was very alone. When they left I was so angry at them and myself for feeling so powerless. Not a major thing but it scared me.

  2. I can definitely sympathise with this one. I travelled to Paris alone in July for a long weekend and being a 19 year old walking the streets by herself I expected to – and did – experience street harassment. It’s funny how pickpockets are what commonly come up when Paris is mentioned but I was much more wary of men when I was on the metro or sitting in a public place. I had a man walk past me and say something disgusting that I’ve managed to blank from my memory – this on a busy street in the centre of Paris in broad daylight. A little while later I had another experience that could have turned out a lot worse than it did – when crossing the Pont des Arts a man stopped me and told me how beautiful I was and then proceeded to make conversation with me. He ended up walking me about an hour across Paris back to my hotel. He was nice enough and we had awkward but pleasant conversation but I would have much rather walked alone and I only walked with him because I was afraid how he would react had I asked him to leave me alone. I find Parisian men to be a lot pushier (or confident?) than British men. Whereas British men will just shout something at me from a passing van, Parisians seem a lot more comfortable coming right up next to me and forcing their presence upon me. It makes me sad that just by way of being born with a vagina I’m gonna be subjected to uncomfortable situations like this for another twenty or thirty years.

  3. Evie, you’ve hit the nail on the head here. I lived in Bordeaux for a few months and I presumed I was just being paranoid. Having just moved to Germany, I haven’t experienced anything LIKE the male behaviour I witnessed in France.

    Fully intend to share this around.

    From, also very blonde, and also slightly linguistically incompetent Englishwoman.

  4. I lived in Paris for 5 years and experienced the kind of harassment you described on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis – mostly verbal harassment but also groping, and taking pictures of me. One morning I was walking home and two road sweepers started following me down the road in their truck, whistling and shouting crap at me. When I told them to go fuck themselves (in my then-almost-perfect French) one of them jumped out of the van and towered over me, raising his fist and threatened to punch me because I had the audacity to answer back.
    I don’t know what the solution is – I struggled to find a way to manage it throughout my time there. I think mastering the language gave me more confidence but even after I stopped being afraid of such encounters I never stopped feeling intense anger & frustration every time it happened.
    I’m glad to hear about the campaign. There’s another French organisation which addresses such issues and you might be interested in: ‘Ni Putes Ni Soumises’ (roughly translates as ‘Neither Whores Nor Doormats’).
    Bon courage!

  5. Interesting, I’ve had the same experiences in France (mainly Paris) and UK (mainly London) and absolutely hassle-free travels and prolonged stays in many countries of Central and Eastern Europe, where, one would think, the culture is no less and probably rather more patriarchal, than, say, in the UK. I really can’t put my finger on the reason for this. I mean, in other ways, as far as women are concerned, France is really advanced: they have good child-care from a very early age, which enables women to work, for example. And the UK is generally rather progressive as well. I come from a country with somewhat more old-fashioned attitudes to women, but we just don’t have this problem, or at least to a much smaller degree. And currently I live in quite a conservative country, where, for example, women are expected to stay home with the kids up until the age of 3. And here, any kind of comments in the street have been minimal. I think it just somehow doesn’t occur to men to behave in this way here. It’s a real relief after the UK and has a huge impact on my quality of life.

  6. I had similar experiences whilst living in Paris on both my gap year and year abroad. I followed the same tactic as you – walking around the streets with headphones permanently jammed in ears, and (towards the end of my stay, when I couldn’t bear it any more) with my hood up to hide my blonde hair (which is what most men commented on). My worst experience involved a man who took photographs of me from afar as I was trying to read in peace in the Jardins du Luxembourg. *Shudders*

  7. Thank you so much for this article. I’ve never lived in Paris, but I experienced this sort of treatment every single day of the five months I lived in Santiago, Chile when doing a year abroad for my degree. As a white, obviously non-Chilean 21 year old girl it was as though I had a huge neon sign flashing above my head asking for catcalls and attention at all times. It really wears you down – I enjoyed my time in South America but by the end of my stay I was so ready to leave. It’s such a pity that this kind of thing can ruin your experience of a country.

    • Well, maybe it’s the patriarchate (not “patriarchalism”). Mediterranean countries have a bigger inequality of sexes than Scandinavian ones. Italy has an enormous problem with men’s violence towards women, and more than 100 women are killed by their partners every year. It’s called femicide. Catcalling or ‘hitting on women’ as you call it falls into the same phenomenon of men feeling entitled to women’s bodies and souls. I think you should fix your theory and not base it on an old photo anymore, because obviously a lot of women don’t feel flattered by catcalls. They feel threatened and dehumanized. So yes, it is the patriarchy.

  8. Hello, I’m French and I totally relate to your story. I’ve lived in the US for a year and I was amazed at how safe I felt when traveling by myself, for instance to Chicago or in small towns in New Mexico.
    When I flew back to Paris, to my own country, that is – I felt constantly assaulted by mens’ attitudes towards me, the catcalling, the looks, etc. Let me just say this: as you may have noticed, we have a lot of Mediterraneans in Paris. Of course I might be called “racist” – because in France there is such a taboo about immigration that noone can speak the truth without being called racist. I have been forced to admit most of the times I get catcalled, the man happens to be Northern African. Of course there are white men who do it too…
    You might disagree with me or be shocked by such allegations, but I really think this might be one of the explanations.

    I hope you still manage to spend a nice time in Paris. Don’t let this bother you, be strong! If we all try and stand up as much as we can and refuse to be treated as objects, it might change for the better in the future. Thank you for posting this article, as a reminder of what women go through everyday only because they happen to be women.
    Good luck!

  9. I have been to Paris twice, once when I was 15, and again at 20, both as part of a group of female friends. I had an amazing time on both trips, but also experienced unprecedented levels of street harassment. At 15, it was something I’d never encountered, and to have men of all ages shouting at us and approaching us was really intimidating. Men in vans and cars (who often had female passengers) would honk their horns repeatedly as we walked past. At 20 I noticed it even more, how on the hottest day in the middle of August we were called sluts for wearing dresses, standing out because all the Parisian women were somehow ignoring the heat in jeans and jumpers- I wonder if this is because they know they’ll get the same response if they started to dress for summer, or if it is just a cultural difference. When we went to the flea markets, one man started shouting sexist comments in French and English. By the time we reached the other end of the market, men were coming out of their stalls to stare and shout abuse. I’ve never known anything like it in other places.

  10. I lived in Paris over 20 years ago, and it was a big problem then. What disturbed me most about running the gauntlet every day was the hostility of most of the men who would grab, follow or proposition me. It was never ‘just a bit of fun’. Going out alone in the evenings was always a calculated risk.

  11. Hi Evie, Thank you for writing this illuminating post on Parisian men. I have now been living in Paris for 5 years and am so glad to hear that “Stop harcèlement de rue!” exists. Like your friend Carys, I decided to solve the problem by adopting a stern expression, instead of my usual smiley demeanour and it shouldn’t be like that.

    There are plenty of polite and respectful French men in Paris, such as my boyfriend and his friends, who would never hassle a girl in the street. I suspect that French men are even more scared of the word feminism than British men are (I’m originally from the UK) so France needs to be having conversations like this on a much more regular basis.

    As we’re both in Paris, I would love to meet for a coffee and chat more about expat life and feminism in France, if you have some time for me. I believe you have lived and worked in Copenhagen, which must have given you an interesting perspective on the role of men and women in society.


  12. Interesting article. I grew up in France and lived there until I was 15, before relocating to the UK with my family (my parents both being british). I was “lucky” not to be on the receiving end of street harassment and cat-calling very much while I lived in France, but I think this is mainly because I lived in a very rural area and therefore was not on the streets all that often. When I moved to the UK, at the age of 15, I was suddenly plunged into city life, and got quite a lot of attention in the streets. From grown men coming up to me while I was shopping with my mum and telling me that I was beautiful, asking me what my GCSE options were (clearly aware of how young I was), and telling me I’d go far because I’m so pretty and clever, to boys a few years older than me walking up to me as I left my house asking for my number (this was particularly creepy, as they’d just seen me exit my house and knew where I lived), to cars full of men slowing down as they drove by me asking me to get in… It was a very big, sudden change.

    But, funnily enough, despite this, I still felt sexism was a far more prevalent problem in France than in the UK. In my previous school, in France, it had been considered completely normal and acceptable for the boys to grope the girls on the playground. From the age of 12 or so, it started. They would grab the girls’ bums and boobs and grope them, without asking, and despite the girls asking them not to and trying to get them to stop, they were ignored, I think the boys thought the girls secretly enjoyed it, or simply didn’t care. Even in the classroom, I was often distracted, because a couple of the boys thought it was very funny to spend the lesson staring very intently, very obviously, at my boobs. I was always torn between keeping my arms crossed, so they could have less visible access to them, and taking notes. It was hugely distracting to my schoolwork. The thing is, because it was so normalised, no one spoke up about it. The girls learned to expect it, and be quiet and accepting of it. Looking back, it was completely disgusting behaviour. The boys eventually decided they didn’t like me, I was too outspoken for a girl, too “violent” (because if they tried to grope me, I’d punch them in the balls), and definitely a lesbian (because I had no interest in them).
    Going to school in the UK was a breath of fresh air. Of course it wasn’t perfect, but it was a very diverse school, and in the top 1% for gender equality in the UK, I had some brilliant female feminist teachers, and the kind of stuff that was normal at my old school would have been cause for huge concern at my new school. When statistics showed that the girls in my school were doing less well than the boys academically (whereas nationally, girls do better), a big scheme was launched. We were encouraged to come forward and tell on any teachers we felt favoured the boys, and any other ways we felt the boys were being given more opportunities. We also had a women’s day for all the girls in our year, with guest speakers. It was great, and such a thing would never have happened in any of the schools I attended in France.
    I guess this is kind of off topic, but as someone who’s lived in both countries, I can vouch that France has a far bigger problem with sexism than Britain does, and I can imagine the street harassment there is far worse than it is here.

  13. I found Florence Italy worse than Paris, I was alone in Florence and have always had companions in Paris so this may have made a difference but in Florence I was hassled almost continuously (honestly not exaggerating) despite wearing a wedding ring and (after the first day or two) constantly looking at the floor. I was only there four days and I was pester-followed at least three times, once all the way to my hostel and the comments and approaches seemed to be almost relentless. I’m not trying to suggest that Paris isn’t bad of course, just that I was staggered by the level of harassment in Florence also.

  14. I’m a 24 year old British expat living in Brussels and I also experience cat-calls and verbal harassment on a daily basis. I live in a mainly North African neighbourhood and I have to say it’s mainly there that I experience this. My tactic is to adopt a f**k-off look in my eyes and to stare straight ahead and never engage with any man who starts harassing me. It’s gotten to the point now where I’m looking to another part of town where I won’t feel anxious and angry every time I leave my home.

  15. I’m half French and have lived in the UK for over a decade, but did a year abroad in France as part of Uni in Grenoble, even as a native I was so shocked at how bad the harassment was! It made me realise how lucky we are in the UK to wear pretty much what we want without feeling like we will attract the wrong attention and get harassed. I went on holiday recently to Nice, I was by myself for a night and felt incredibly vulnerable, I made sure to wear jeans and have a scarf to cover my arms! You would have thought I was in a more conservative country, with this mindset. On the final day, after my friend had left, I was followed by a man on The Promenade des Anglais, in the daytime in public. Yes he was harmless and I was wearing a green dress but so what, I did not look at this man and I did not want to talk to him. I decided to not utter a word and he eventually after 5 minutes got the picture, luckily he wasn’t aggressive.
    But during my time in Grenoble, I learnt that you must cover yourself, even if you do cover yourself you’ll probably still be harassed.

    I am so glad that this campaign has finally started! How has it taken so long for a developed country such as France! There was a documentary made by Sofie Peeters in Brussels called Femme de la Rue ( its not just problem in Paris but all over France and Belgium it seems. Its similar to the recent video of that lady walking for 10 hours around New York.

    I agree with the above comment that you can feel racist as the harassment can mostly be from Northern Africans, but I had a Moroccan male friend in Grenoble and he wasn’t creepy or the catcalling kind. French men whatever origin need to be taught to respect women and that it is not ok to be creepy, there’s a long way to go.

  16. Thank you so much everyone for you comments and feedback on this article! It’s been both enriching and supportive :) Whilst I don’t like to think of others experiencing harassment, it has been a great comfort to know that I’m not alone. You start to feel a bit crazy otherwise! The responses to this and the video from New York this week demonstrates that street harassment is still a major issue that needs tackling.

  17. I live in California and in the past few years I have had men pull me toward them in clubs, been kissed, grabbed, fondled, licked and even had a man push his hand into my underwear on packed dance floors.

    I no longer go to clubs. I like walking the park by my work but have had a men stop me to ask me for my number, ask for directions but have it turn sexual and even had one guy pull up in his car to “ask for directions” and when I wouldn’t “come closer” to point him in the right direction, he proceeded to get out of his car and start chasing me. On a separate occasion, I had a man try to pull me into his car but peppersprayed him and ran away.

    I rarely like to work out anymore in public. I like to walk to restaurants though and eat lunches by myself so I can listen to my e-books while I treat myself to a nice meal, but I get told that I’m “too pretty to eat alone” and have guys seat themselves at my table. I’ve had to ask staff to get people to leave me alone at restaurants only to be called a bitch because I wouldn’t accept a “politeness” or “chivalry”.

    Not only all of that, but until this job I’ve always been paid less at my jobs, even less than my own intern at one place and have been sexually assaulted twice at two separate jobs as well as physically assaulted and beaten at two separate jobs, only to have it laughed off by HR.

    I could go on and on about things like how my condo neighbor tried to pull me into his apartment when I knocked on his door at 2am to ask him to turn down his music at 2am on a Tuesday night when I lived alone at 17 or how a male worker at my school followed me home and pushed his way into my apartment and had me cornered in my bathroom, calling me a cunt because I wouldn’t go on a date with him.

    I love men, I do and there are so many great ones out there, but they need to realize that this kind of behavior terrifies the living hell out of us and perpetuates misogyny.

  18. I would have tried to smash that phone out of his hand in anger, damn the consequences. My friends got accosted in Paris and now I know why

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