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French city offers women self-defence classes before summer festival

media Crowds of revellers gather in front of Bayonne City Hall on July 25, 2018, during the opening ceremony of the Fêtes de Bayonne. IROZ GAIZKA / AFP

In the spirit of the MeToo movement, Bayonne has offered courses with the aim of preventing and reducing sexual harassment at its renowned summer festival.

The five-day summer festival held in the south-western French city of Bayonne, which opened Wednesday, is one of the largest in all of Europe. Last year it attracted more than a million visitors, according to local officials. That many people, mixed with a high consumption of alcohol, can become a recipe for increased incidents of sexual violence.

To combat this, local media reports that regional health authorities organised self-defence courses for women ahead of the festival this year. The idea was to give women the tools they need to potentially prevent and respond to verbal and physical assault.

The participants ranged in age from 15 to 70 years old, according to course organiser Marion Maurin. “Some women learned that simple reflexes, like screaming or putting your hands in front of you, can dissuade an aggressor in the middle of a crowd,” she told French radio RTL.

On top of that, the city will systematically join legal proceedings in defence of sexual assault victims “in the case that victims decide to file criminal charges,” AFP quoted local volunteer Marie Pérès as saying.

Bayonne went forward with these initiatives after consulting with local advocates like Pérès. “It’s a strong political gesture on the city’s part,” she said. “The city is telling potential aggressors loud and clear that crimes will not go unpunished.”

Bayonne official Martine Bisauta told AFP that Bayonne is, to her knowledge, “the first city in France to put in place such sexual harassment initiatives.”

Dozens of volunteers, for the second consecutive year, will also set up so-called ‘strategic meeting points’ on the festival’s perimeter, where victims or people who may feel unsafe can go for help.

Government efforts in MeToo era

Bayonne may be the first city in France to establish such sexual violence initiatives for a festival, but it’s not the first city in Europe to do so.

Pamplona in neighbouring Spain has also dealt with problems of sexual assault during its famous San Fermin “running of the bulls” festival. The city and the country at large were shaken by a 2016 case in which five men filmed themselves sexually attacking an 18-year-old girl. In response, Pamplona officials have launched a 24-hour phone hotline and a mobile app that can geolocalise victims and allow them to instantly report cases of abuse during the festival, according to media reports.

On a national scale, the French government recently made cat-calling and other forms of verbal street harassment punishable by a fine of 90 euros. In the capital, Paris public transport authorities have set up a 24-hour phone hotline that victims can call or text.

In Bayonne, about a dozen victims file sexual assault charges after the summer festival each year, according to Bayonne public prosecutor Samuel Vuelta Simon. Most incidents occurred in tandem with high levels of alcohol consumption. But only two or three cases lead to prosecution, Simon told AFP, as it’s often difficult to establish concrete evidence.

Bisauta hopes this will change. The city’s overall aim is to “accompany victims,” she told AFP. “Bringing criminal charges against someone is not easy. If the city is by their side, they’ll feel supported.”

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