A French man who violently assaulted a woman in the streets of Paris after she confronted him for catcalling her, captured in a video that went viral on social media, has been sentenced to six months in prison and fined €2,000. The sentence also includes a further six months of suspended jail time and mandatory treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. The 25-year-old man, who is identified as Firas M., threw an ashtray and punched 22-year-old engineering student, Marie Laguerre, in the face in an aggravated attack that was caught on CCTV. He was arrested in August.
In an attempt to shine a light on the problem of street harassment and violence against women, Laguerre uploaded the footage of the attack to her Facebook page. In the post she wrote, “Last night, as I was coming back home in Paris, I walked past a man who sexually/verbally harassed me. He wasn’t the first one, and I can’t accept being humiliated like that, so I replied ‘shut up.'” She goes on to say that after telling the man to stop, he attacked her in the middle of the street. In the video, one can clearly see the viciousness of the attack and the complete lack of provocation on Laguerre’s behalf. The attack takes place in front of a busy cafe and onlookers are completely taken aback and stunned. Laguerre ended her Facebook post with the words, “we must no longer keep quiet.”
After the video was posted, the incident received worldwide attention. It sparked a debate in France about the prevalence of sexual harassment and many women have spoken out about finding themselves in similar situations to Laguerre. The intensity of the outcry had an impact because, in the days after the attack, lawmakers passed a bill that would make certain forms of street harassment a crime and allow police to issue on-the-spot fines of up to €750 to perpetrators. According to the legislation, unwanted following, ‘upskirting’ or taking photos underneath a person’s skirt or dress, intrusive questions and disrespectful comments about a person’s appearance can all be counted as street harassment. At the time, French Equalities Minister, Marléne Schiappa persuaded the National Assembly to pass the legislation, saying afterwards, “The political response must be strong and it is, because for the first time in France we will fine those responsible for street harassment.”
Unfortunately, as the law was passed after Firas M. was arrested, he was not charged with sexual harassment and prosecutors argued there was not sufficient evidence for him to be charged. However, as part of his punishment, he will be required to attend classes on sexist violence and violence among couples. He has served time in prison before for pimping and physically attacking his mother. He has also been forbidden from contacting Laguerre.
After the ruling, Laguerre told journalists she felt the sentencing was balanced saying “Few people are able to have their harasser facing justice. Every time we denounce these behaviours, it’s progress.” Her lawyer, Noémie Saidi-Cottier, echoed the statement when she said, “My client wanted a punishment but she didn’t want his head to roll, she just wanted him to learn a lesson. If he never does that again, she feels she has won.”
After the attack, Laguerre set up a website called Nous Toutes Harcelement or ‘We Are All Harassed.’ The site was designed as a space for women to share their stories of street harassment in a private and anonymous way. She told Australian radio show, R.N. Breakfast, “It was really because there was media attention on me and I really wanted to make a change.” She believes that the solution lies in education, not in punishment. She said, “Many men, they don’t understand, they don’t even know what they are doing is wrong,” adding that education about sexual harassment and appropriate behaviour should begin early on.
In France, the new law has already been effective. Last month, a man who made lewd comments to a woman while on a bus in Paris was fined €300. While there is hope that the law will change men’s behaviour on the streets, it is likely that Laguerre is right and more needs to be done in terms of changing male attitudes towards women. In order to properly reduce situations like this worldwide, there needs to be a shift in the types of behaviours we normalize. Harassing or hurting women, whether they be strangers in the street or your closest family members, should never be seen as acceptable.
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