Dealing with harassment from French men

Dealing with harassment from French men by Archibald Ballantine

This article was written by Emma Obank, published on 11th December 2012 and has been read 9419 times.

Emma is studying French and Hispanic Studies at the University of Sheffield and is spending her year abroad as a Marketing Intern for WD40 in Bron, Lyon, and as an Erasmus student at the University of Valencia. Here is her safety advice about dealing with harassment from French men in Lyon...
Men cause us ladies problems at the best of times, yet on your year abroad in a large French metropolis such as Lyon (surrounded by ‘les banlieues’) you will get more than you bargained for.

First impressions

Before I embarked on my four-month-long Lyonnais adventure I daydreamed being swept off my feet by a soave Frenchman called either ‘Pierre’ or ‘François’. My visions were clouded by this whole romantic French stereotype that you see in the old black and white movies where this ‘Pierre’ turns up at your doorstep with a bottle of fine red wine and a bouquet of red roses. I thought that everyday would be Valentine’s Day in France. I mean it is true in that that these dashing suave Frenchmen exist, however they tend to be about 30 and aren’t really looking to date Erasmus students! I therefore, being a foreigner alone in France tend to be approached by a very different group of people: “les jeunes des banlieues”.

My experience

On my second day in Lyon I remember walking down Rue de La République (Lyon’s ‘Fifth Avenue’ or ‘Oxford Street’…) with a friend. Suddenly out of nowhere I felt a slap on my backside (which super burned!). When I turned around to shout some sort of profanity in English, I realised it was a young teenage boy with his friends. I therefore laughed it off and continued my shopping spree. From that day on I gradually started to notice that that moment wasn’t an anomaly. Since that day, in the past four months, I’ve experienced the following:

At an agricultural trade show a group of old men circled me and lifted up my skirt ‘as a joke’. A group of teenage boys ran up to me on Rue de la République (avoid this road like the plague in the evening) and one of them tried to put his hand down my top. Another teenager followed me home from Rue de la République verbally harassing me because I refused to respond. Another teenager blocked me with his legs when I was sat at the back of a bus and wouldn’t let me leave because I was ignoring him trying to ‘charm’ me.

'La Racaille'

Today at work I’ve spoke to several women to demand as to why these teenage boys do this. Is it just me because I’m blonde with pale skin so am evidently a foreigner? Or do they just get kicks out of harassing everyone? According to them, young ERASMUS students are targeted by these boys as they know that we are in France alone, and won’t know how to react when spoken to like this. However it is true that they do indeed get a kick of it in front of their friends, and tend to harass all young women no matter what nationality they are. There is a word in French that is used to define these young people from the suburbs: ‘la racaille’. Translated in plain English this means ‘scum’ (not very nice eh?). It is not used very openly in France as it is intensely informal and rude; however it is a work that every city-dweller has come across.

Admittedly, 80% of the men who have approached me have been from this group known as ‘la racaille’; however it’s also worth remembering that I was also approached by a group of 60-year-old farmers at an agricultural trade show. So as you see, it can happen anywhere and by anyone! The reason I was approached at the trade show was because I was wearing a skirt that was slightly above the knee (quelle horreur) and it was clear to these men that I was foreign. As one of the men took my hands to say how ‘beautiful’ I was (cringe), I awkwardly replied to thank him in my foreign accent. This then gave him the urge to try and lift up my skirt to reveal my legs and granny knickers (thank God I was wearing black tights). I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say and awkwardly ran off and bid them a pleasant ‘bonne journée’.

Il faut faire attention

As young foreign girls on our year abroad we are easy prey. Not all of my friends have had the same caliber of experiences as me, but all of them have been shouted and whistled at on the streets in one way or another. If you are going on year abroad to the countryside you might be lucky enough to go about your day in peace, but if you’re headed to one of the big cities such as Lyon, Marseille or Paris…"Il faut faire attention".

“Il faut faire attention” is what my female colleagues say to me every single day when I leave work to catch the bus. They were actually surprised to hear that I got the metro back on my own at 10pm last night because in Lyon it is deemed dangerous (especially to catch the metro back to my part of town). Because of all of these experiences I have had with these ‘jeunes’ I have actually started to fear walking back when it is dark, no matter what hour it is. I mean my problems have never been horrendously awful, but it certainly isn’t nice when you’re alone in a foreign country and get harassed by men using a form of argot that you simply don’t understand.

As well as asking the ladies at work as to why the men do this (to which they replied "just for kicks"), I asked them if they have any advice to give to girls coming to French cities. They came up with the following:

Locals' safety advice for women in France

If you take the bus always sit near the driver as the teenagers are always making a fuss trying to impress each other at the back. Try not to be walking about alone after 10pm. If you do walk back late, walk along either talking to someone on your mobile phone or at least have the emergency 112 number ready to dial on your screen. If someone does approach you, always stay polite and say ‘non merci’ and then continue walking. Alternatively you can choose to ignore them, but never ever swear at them or be rude as that will only aggravate them and make them bother you more. Try to stay away from the suburbs. Walk down main roads where it is well lit. Never walk home alone when you’re drunk. If you want to ignore someone put your headphones on (sometimes I do this without listening to music so I can hear what they say to me). One woman suggested buying pepper spray but I think it was a joke as I’m pretty sure it is illegal!

Don't panic; just be aware

The above advice isn’t exactly gospel, but it helped me out a lot as I have to take public transport every day through the really dodgy part of town. I don’t intend on striking fear into anyone who reads this, it’s just that I wish I’d known to avoid certain streets when I first moved to Lyon. It’s just worth remembering that when you live a normal day to day life in a foreign country, you start to notice some of the cracks which aren’t shown in the tourism brochures. As someone at work put it to me today: ‘When tourists come to France they have an image of a man in a beret with a moustache holding a bunch of baguettes. That’s all well and good, but it’s worth noticing that our country too has its problems, and one of our problems just happens to be the behavior of youngsters who think it is okay to target women just for fun’.

Anyway, to use the language of ‘les jeunes’, “Je Kiffe La France Trop” (‘J’adore la France’ in proper ‘school’ French). Have a great year abroad and don’t let the ‘jeunes’ get you down!

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