In France catcalling could soon be banned, but parts of the new law against sexual harassment are proving difficult to establish.

The new law could come into effect from the beginning of next year and is part of French president Emmanuel Macron’s plans to combat violence against women in France and across Europe.

Macron said:

France can no longer be a country where women are afraid.

I can speak firsthand of the unpleasant, uncomfortable culture of catcalling in Paris.

In the short time I have lived here, it has become the only place where my run home in the evening leaves me feeling more riled up than energised. This week I counted five comments in one hour, from men ranging from 20-60 years old, which despite being only very brief interactions, still managed to make me feel uncomfortable.

France’s equality minister Marlene Schiappa announced a new bill in October against gender-based violence, including plans to criminalise catcalling. Schiappa thinks it will lower societies tolerance to harassment. The bill will be voted on by MPs next year.

However, defining catcalling — and whether the attention qualifies as unwanted — is not easy.

There is group of French politicians and lawmakers working on a legal definition of catcalling that is “neither too restrictive, nor so slippery it will rule out all unprompted conversation between sexes”, according to the New York Times. The team will also decide on the resulting penalties.

Schiappa has said she hopes that the law will act as a deterrent. In an interview with Politico she said:

We’re conscious that there won’t be a police officer present every time there is an act of harassment.

Iain Wilson, managing partner of Brett Wilson LLP, specialising in privacy and harassment, told Verdict:

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Cat-calling is difficult to define.  At one end it might involve wolf-whistles or unwanted compliments.  In extreme cases, it might include offensive gestures, the shouting out of obscenities or the invasion of personal space.

Any law would need to provide sufficient certainty as to precisely what was being criminalised. The state should be cautious about criminalising speech; freedom of expression is a fundamental human right.

If the threshold is too low, innocent remarks could be criminalised.  It would be no fun living in a world where people were scared from talking with one another.

According to Wilson “criminal law is most effective when it operates as a deterrent” and offenders need to be aware that shouting crude remarks at passers-by can attract criminal sanctions.

However, he doesn’t think an officer would have to witness the harassment first hand, as Schiappa has suggested.

Very few criminal offences are witnessed by police offices.  Most turn on the cross-examination of evidence provided by witnesses.

In France, where chauvinistic behaviour is often accepted as part of the culture, the problem of sexual harassment was recently documented in a study by anti-street harassment nonprofit Hollaback and Cornell University.

According to the study 76 percent of participants reported being followed in the last year while over half reported changed their clothing, taking a different route, form of transportation or keeping clear of an area completely to avoid harassment. Some had resigned or quit their jobs.