Nov 20th, 2017, 06:19 PM

Is Paris Safe for Women?

By Lindsey Joy
The Safest Streets Might Actually be the Most Dangerous

When I told friends and family I was moving to Paris, one of the most frequent questions asked was, “Are you worried about your safety?”

They, of course, were referring to my safety in regards to terrorist attacks in Paris over the past several years. Each time I was asked this question, I brushed it off, referencing the statistic that you are more likely to be killed in a car accident than a terrorist attack. I would reply that terrorism could occur anywhere, at any time, and that one can’t live one's life in fear. The question I was never asked, however, was if I was worried about my personal safety as a woman in Paris. And little did I know then, that two weeks after settling into the city, I would become a victim of a sexual assault in the streets of Paris.

The incident occurred late one night as I was walking alone to a Métro station. As I walked down a backstreet between two main avenues, a young man and woman on bicycles circled around me, blocked me in, and physically groped me under my dress while taunting me with kissing noises. Luckily, I escaped before the situation escalated into something worse by yelling at the top of my lungs and running away. But the residual emotional and psychological impact of the assault still haunt me. While this type of assault could have happened anywhere, it has greatly affected my overall experience in Paris and even my perception of the city as a whole. I am now anxious walking down the streets, especially at night, keeping my head down at all times, constantly checking over my shoulder, and locating the closest person to whom I could run to for help.

Once I started sharing my experience with other American female friends here in Paris, the resounding response was how they felt so safe in Paris. When I told native French people, they reiterated that Paris is considered one of the “safest” cities for women in the world, compared with other large metropolitan areas.

But my personal experience made me wonder how “unusual” incidents like these actually are…and how safe is Paris for women really?

Image Credit: SBS

A Not-So-Pretty Picture

As I started to research sexual assault in Paris, I found a much different picture than the romantic narrative of Paris as a friendly, safe city that is painted for foreigners. For starters, one of the most conducive environments in Paris for sexual assault is public transportation. A recent study of 600 women polled in the Paris area found 100 percent of those surveyed reported having been victims of some sort of sexual assault or harassment on the Métro.

Many women also report altering their behavior and decisions about transportation choices: six out of ten women confessed to being afraid of being attacked on public transport and one in two women in France said they purposely wear pants over skirts on the Métro. A similar percentage of women said they do not use public transport at certain times, especially in the evenings, and 34 percent opt to bike or take a taxi or car to avoid the possibility of assault all together. One 26-year-old woman confessed that Paris was the worst city she'd lived in when it came to sexual harassment. "The men in Paris take a lot of liberties...Sometimes I deliberately change train carriages if there are lots of men. I'd rather not put myself in a situation where I'm alone with only men because I know what would happen… I'm kind of used to it in Paris. It's not like this anywhere else I've been."

Image Credit: The Local

The 'Nice' Part of Town

In addition to the high prevalence of sexual assault on public transport systems, nine out of ten rapes in Paris are said to go unreported. Where these sexual assaults are taking place is also alarming. The night I was attacked, I was walking through the first arrondissement, thinking I was in a nice part of town; little did I know that despite the fancy hotels and expensive restaurants, I was in one of the most reportedly dangerous areas of the city for women.

While most residents, and even tourists, generally have common sense to avoid more “dodgy” parts of town where crime and prostitution are known to be high, the highest number of rapes per capita in Paris was actually found to be in the 1st arrondissement: an up-scale, touristy area that is home to landmarks such as the Louvre museum and the historic Tuileries Gardens. The 16th arrondissement, one of the most affluent areas of the city, reports the most rapes overall in the city. This leads me to the unsettling conclusion that there really are no “safe” neighborhoods in Paris and, in fact, neighborhoods that have the reputation for being the most safe, could actually be the most dangerous for women.

Map showing concentration of rapes in Paris via ONDRP. Areas in light blue show a high concentration of rapes, dark areas show a lower concentration of rapes. The white lines draw the boundaries of each arrondissement, Image Credit: VICE News

"Stop- That's Enough!"

So how does one like myself; a young, foreign woman, feel safe in a city that has less-than-reassuring statistics, especially considering that the study above also reported that 52 percent of victims were foreign nationals and almost a third of the victims were born outside of France? In response to the findings from the previous Métro study, I discovered a national awareness campaign was launched in late 2015 by the French government targeting sexual harassment and assault on public transport.

The initiative included a series of measures aimed at cracking down on harassment such as trials allowing passengers on night buses to get on and off where they wanted, a new emergency text number to report cases of assault, and an advertising campaign to inform the public that sexual assault and verbal harassment are punishable by law. One campaign poster showed a Métro line where each stop was labeled with comments from an increasingly aggressive harasser. The comments escalate from "Mademoiselle" and "You're charming" to "I'm going to grab you". Another showed a Métro line with the thoughts of a woman who is being harassed: from "Why is he looking at me like that?" to "I feel his hand on me" to "I'm scared." Both posters finish with the campaign’s slogan: "Stop - that’s enough!” 

2015 French Sexual Harassment Awareness Advertising Poster, Image Credit: The Local

2015 French Sexual Harassment Awareness Advertising Poster, Image Credit: The Local

Et maintenant, on fait quoi?

While the advertisements are no longer up in Paris, the subject has regained attention recently in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo campaign that appeared last month. A new law in France is being enacted that will impose on-the-spot fines for harassment of women in the streets of France, which is already punishable up to a five-year prison term a €75,000 fine. French President Emmanuel Macron weighed in on the subject recently, saying: "What adds insult to injury is... the silence, the taboo. Today, too often, (women) don't press charges because they don't dare to."

Part of the reason why women are afraid to speak up about reporting these incidents is because of stigmatization and victim-blaming. In my own case, I realized there was an over-arching theme to many of the responses I received, regarding what I should have done or what I should to do in the future in order to prevent being attacked. While I know these comments were made out of love and concern for my safety, I've realized how much of the discourse on this topic falls back on the victim: carry mace (which is illegal in France), walk with friends, don't smile at strangers, take a taxi late at night, report crimes to the police etc. All of these precautions I agree with; women need to be vigilant in any city and take measures to protect themselves. But how did we get to the point as a society where the topic and focus of conversation is what women should be doing to defend themselves, where we are assuming that assault is normal, and to a certain extent, even expected?

Many women are unaware that they are even victims of sexual assault because they have been conditioned to accept low-level abuse as normal. Why instead aren’t we focusing on why assault has become a societal and cultural norm, even in a Western country that is considered one of the “safest” countries for women? If we can shift to the understanding that sexual assault is not normal, we can hopefully move away from the stigma that comes with discussing the topic and the frequency of these types of assaults occurring altogether, ultimately leading to an increased feeling of safety for women in public spaces. As Pascale Boisard, president of the High Council for Gender Equality, summarizes, “Women must be able to move about and occupy the public space without being placed in danger or threatened. It's a fundamental freedom.”

Et maintenant, on fait quoi?

The town of Lille, France introduced a shock campaign video reflecting sexual harassing comments that French public transport passengers had been subjected to.