At first few people seemed to notice the encounter. The young Parisian woman in red and the man in the black shirt exchanged words as they passed each other in the street. They went their separate ways. But then he swiveled around and followed her. She turned to face him, and that was when — in front of more than a dozen people sitting at a cafe — he punched her, she said.
The woman, Marie Laguerre, 22, posted the cafe’s surveillance video on social media the next day. There was no audio, but it showed her receiving a blow to the head as other patrons at the cafe watched in shock. In the video, although the man in the black shirt was only partly seen on camera, it appeared as though he had hit her.
That video of the attack, which took place on July 24, was shared widely online, resonating throughout Europe and beyond.
When they first passed each other, he made “dirty comments” in a “humiliating and provocative way,” Ms. Laguerre said later on social media.
She initially told him to “shut up,” she wrote on YouTube.
He wasn’t the first one to harass her, she said in the post, “and I can’t accept being humiliated like that.”
“He then threw an ashtray at me, before rushing back to punch me,” she added.
Some of the men at the cafe jumped up to confront the man as he walked away; one brandished a chair. On social media, Ms. Laguerre thanked them for their support, saying they did all they could have at the time.
“To all those who say that witnesses have not reacted enough: Everything happened very quickly and they did not have time to understand the situation. The attacker was dangerous,” she wrote on Facebook.
The Paris prosecutor’s office opened an inquiry into the episode, The Guardian reported, noting that the man had not been identified.
Ms. Laguerre was inundated with supportive messages from other women, including French politicians, who have vowed to crack down on street harassment.
Despite those efforts, the #MeToo movement in France is still a work in progress, Geneviève Fraisse, a French philosopher, writer on feminist thought and director of research at the government’s National Center for Scientific Research, said in an interview.
Women in France, just as in every other country, experience harassment at their jobs and elsewhere, and are victims of rape. But lately much of the discussion in the country has centered on legislation that would create fines for street harassment and catcalling, and how that type of harassment would be proved. The latest version of the bill would also punish those who secretively take photos or videos under a woman’s skirt, proposing a maximum punishment of two years in prison and a fine of up to 30,000 euros.
But in the national conversation about sexual harassment, why is harassment in the streets the most important thing? Ms. Fraisse asked.
“It’s not only the streets that are the problem,” she said.
Unlike in the United States, the names of powerful men accused of sexual harassment or assault are generally not splashed across the front page in France. There are some exceptions, as in the case of the film director Luc Besson, who was recently accused of rape by the actress Sand Van Roy. The response from the film industry was muted.
And some believe the #MeToo movement hampers sexual freedom.
“Rape is a crime,” the letter said. “But insistent or clumsy flirting is not a crime, nor is gallantry a chauvinist aggression.”
The letter also suggested that in the case of men who masturbate by rubbing themselves against women on buses or subways, women could “consider it as the expression of a great sexual misery, or even as a nonevent.”
Some legislators have argued this is exactly the attitude that needs to change in France, a country where male chauvinism has often gone unchallenged and American attitudes about sex are considered puritanical or uptight.
“We have immense difficulty convincing young women that when a man rubs his genitals against a woman in the metro without her consent, it is an act of sexual assault that can lead to three years in prison and a 75,000 euro fine,” France’s junior minister for gender equality, Marlene Schiappa, told France Culture radio at the time the letter came out.
Ms. Schiappa, one of the legislators who worked on the catcalling bill, said on Twitter that what happened to Ms. Laguerre was unacceptable.
“Liberty is fundamentally at stake,” Ms. Schiappa wrote. “This is why combating harassment in the streets is a priority.”
Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, on Twitter thanked Ms. Laguerre for her courage and pledged “Total solidarity!”
Ms. Laguerre, who spoke to Le Parisien about the video, said she looked her attacker straight in the eyes and “took the blow with the greatest pride” to show him that “if he wanted to put me back into my place, well it wasn’t working.”
“I watched him leave and I stood there straight and with dignity as much as I could because I was in such a rage,” she told Le Parisien. “But I didn’t want to show him an ounce of submission.”
She said she had received an “enormous amount” of supportive messages from other women, including those with their own stories of harassment.
Nearly every woman has been harassed, she said.
“I am sick of feeling unsafe waking in the street,” Ms. Laguerre wrote in her YouTube post. “Things need to change, and they need to change now.”
Orignially published in NYT.