Two European countries are pushing ahead or have already passed laws that give police officers more leeway to punish harassers immediately.

  • Finland introduced on-the-spot fines last year.
  • France is considering passing similar legislation next year, although the level of penalties there is still unclear. The fines would be one component of a broader crackdown on sexual violence and harassment, proposed by the country’s equality minister, Marlène Schiappa.

However, this new option for victims of sexual harassment has people wondering:

Such fines could ensure swift punishment, but would they also relegate sexual harassment to the status of a mundane violation like speeding or illegal parking, as some critics argue?

Spurred by the Weinstein scandal

Schiappa’s proposals had already been discussed for weeks but gained new momentum after sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein resulted in the global #MeToo social media campaign over the weekend. Victims of sexual harassment from across the globe shared their experiences with other users online, and a similar hashtag quickly gained traction in France.

“It’s completely necessary because at the moment street harassment is not defined in the law,” Schiappa said in an interview on Monday with RTL, a French radio station.

Legislators are expected to debate her proposals, which are currently being written by five MPs and include on-the-spot fines. A law could be passed next year. French President Emmanuel Macron has indicated that he is willing to mobilize additional community police officers to enforce the policy.

Questions and critics

Whereas on-the-spot fines could send a message to perpetrators that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, critics wonder how police officers would draw a line between flirting and harassment in cases that are less clear.

“We know very well at what point we start feeling intimidated, unsafe or harassed in the street,” the minister said.

If a stranger talked to a woman “10, 20 centimeters from your face” or asked “for your number 17 times,” then a fine would be appropriate, Schiappa said.

How it works in Finland

Johanna Niemi, a law and gender studies professor at Finland’s University of Turku, emphasized that there was support for the policy in Finland.

“It works the same way as ticketing for traffic violations — the police gives the perpetrator a ticket and he pays it. If he does not pay, we have an efficient enforcement system that picks up the fine from your salary,” Niemi said.

Suspects can reportedly both be fined on the scene — for instance if officers witnessed the sexual harassment — or later on, if an officer finds a witness account to be trustworthy.

If suspects believe they were unfairly fined, they can challenge the decisions in a court. Victims of sexual harassment are also still able to press criminal charges, even if suspects were already fined.

“It is better than nothing,” Niemi said.

So far, it is unclear to what extent the proposed French law will borrow from the Finnish approach.

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