ARE WOMEN BEING PUSHED OUT OF PARIS? STEPH GREEN DISCUSSES THE UNCOMFORTABLE ATMOSPHERE IN THE CHIC CITY…
In the Summer of 2017, Le Parisien revealed that there are “several hundred square meters of pavement abandoned to men alone; women are no longer considered entitled to be there.” Effectively, women have been geographically expelled, forced to stay at home, lest they be insulted and harassed.
France is often thought to be a progressive country. It isn’t somewhere where we would immediately think of when we say oppression. And whilst some blame the rise of sexism on areas highly populated with migrant communities, it’s time for France to accept that it has fundamental issues with how it treats women, instead of deflecting the blame.
Paris is split into 20 arrondissements, winding in a circle from the centre with the periphery areas being the higher numbers. Although the problem is widespread, particularly on the metro, the “no-go zone” area in question lies to the north of Paris, in the 10th and 18th, in particular the district of Chapelle-Pajol.
In a manner that is somewhat The Handmaid’s Tale-esque, women are reportedly being expelled from a space that they were once able to occupy and feeling forced to dress modestly. Women in this area of Paris have spoken out about how they feel they cannot walk the streets without being subjected to comments and insults from men. A 50-year-old resident of the area said that “the atmosphere is agonizing, to the point of having to modify our routes and our clothing. Some [women] even gave up going out.” Some women claim that, due to the high migrant population, they are harassed as they are regarded as dressing “immodestly.” Some insist that they are harassed by men of all races. One 80-year-old woman has stopped leaving her apartment after being sexually assaulted one day; another receives a barrage of insults and harassment simply by standing at her window.
A small group of women from the local neighbourhood began a petition named “Women: A Threatened Species in the Heart of Paris,” which has attracted nearly 20,000 signatures in less than two weeks. Organisers have had to assume false names when talking to the press, as they have received regular death threats.
Why, then, is the Mayor refusing to speak up about the problem in Paris? Of course, the quartier in question is an extreme example, but the atmosphere in all of Paris can only be described as tense, with almost everyone I’ve spoken to saying it’s the most uncomfortably sexist city they have ever visited. Mayor Hidalgo insists that in the case of Pajol it is just a “local delinquency group”. Yet the core attitude is evidently more widespread than that, something deeper within the social zeitgeist. A 2016 government report suggested that in some quartiers, public areas are “occupied” exclusively by men who “park” there, and women are merely authorised to pass through them. How ironically helpless, that this should be happening in the same city where Simone de Beauvoir’s visceral The Second Sex explained that women were being cast aside by a forced sense of Otherness.
I haven’t yet ventured too much into the north of Paris, mainly as a result of French women telling me to avoid it like the plague. At first I didn’t take much notice of this: as a born and bred Londoner I consider myself to be pretty savvy with these things. Of course I’ve experienced harassment before – but after a month of living here, I’ve discovered that Paris is on an entirely new level. On, I’d say, around 80% of my metro journeys, I’ll be made to feel uncomfortable by men – of all ages and races – whether it be simply staring, smiling, and lip-smacking, or derogatory comments (exacerbated by the language barrier). I dread my daily commute to work and regularly have to get up and move carriages. I was once overheard speaking English, and had a stranger shout at me that he wanted to “fuck me in the ass” – clearly the only English phrase he had ever bothered to learn.
President Macron has announced he plans to wage war against street harassment, starting with a ban of wolf whistling. And whilst legislation is still being planned to decide what exactly constitutes as harassment, already it seems like an impossible thing to enforce. How would one report it? Where would the evidence come from? One survey conducted has found that 100% of women have been victim of some kind of sexual harassment on public transport around Paris. Can authorities respond to all reports? And, moreover, what exactly constitutes street harassment? French Gender equality minister Marlene Schiappa gives an example many women can relate to: “You are a woman in an underground train. I am a man. I follow you. You get off the train. I get off. You get on another train. I get on too. I ask you for your telephone number. I ask again. I ask a third time. You feel oppressed. That is street harassment.”
It’s a depressing notion that men may stop harassing women not because they think it’s wrong, but because they don’t want to be fined or sent to prison. What is clear, is that attitudes must change – and France needs to start accepting that they are part of the problem, not its sudden saviour.