Lecherous French face fines as Assembly approves harassment bill

PARIS (Reuters) - Men who wolf-whistle or sexually harass women on French streets face fines of up to 750 euros ($885) after lawmakers in the National Assembly approved tougher legislation to combat sexual violence.

However, a proposal to change age of consent laws to protect minors in rape cases was diluted after the highest legal authority, the Council of State, weighed in to warn it could be ruled unconstitutional.

The law, backed by a majority of lawmakers in an overnight parliamentary session, comes amid a worldwide wave of sexual assault allegations against men in business, entertainment and politics, which have sparked online protest movements.

President Emmanuel Macron has said the bill is meant to ensure “women are not afraid to be outside”.

In a drive to discourage sexual harassment on the street, cat-callers and aggressively lecherous individuals of either sex can be hit with on-the-spot penalties ranging from 90 to 750 euros.

Gender Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa had previously outlined plans to also change age of consent laws so that minors under 15 who have sex with adults over 18 would be presumed not to have given consent.

The measure was aimed at facilitating convictions, after a case where a man in his 20s was cleared of rape for having sex with an 11-year-old girl because there was no evidence she was coerced.

After the court said the bill’s automatic assumption of coercion might be unconstitutional, it was redrawn to state that sex between a person of 15 or under and an adult can be considered rape if the victim “lacked the necessary discernment to consent”.

Opposition lawmakers and some women’s rights groups decried that change as watering down the measure, though government ministers said the bill would still make it easier to obtain rape convictions.

The new legislation will also give underage victims of rape an extra decade to file complaints. The deadline will now be 30 years from when they turn 18, up from 20 years now.

Some critics have mocked the harassment measures as an end to French romance. During Wednesday night’s debate, far-right lawmaker Emmanuelle Menard denounced the legislation as a “witchhunt against men” that outlawed “a certain bawdy behavior which cannot be compared to harassment.”

Schiappa last year told Reuters the government was not looking to stamp out flirtatious behavior and “kill the culture of the ‘French lover’”, but simply looking to establish that consent was key.

The legislation will now be debated in the Senate.

Reporting by Sarah White; Editing by Richard Lough and Peter Graff