PARIS (AP) — France claims great success in recruiting women into its armed forces, boasting one of the world's highest percentages of women in uniform. What it hasn't done is work to prevent sexual assault and harassment once they get there.
That is about to change.
Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, on Tuesday presented a 36-page report on the problem and announced the military's first effort to tackle it. This report cited 86 reported cases of sexual assault or harassment since the start of 2013 alone.
"These cases are totally unacceptable," Le Drian told military officers and reporters in a Paris speech, vowing tougher penalties for those responsible — without citing any specific cases. "There is only one worthwhile policy: zero tolerance."
The plan, prompted by a whistleblowing book published in February, calls for reforms as basic as including sexual harassment in the military code and creating a statistical database of offenses.
Brigitte Debernardy, a co-author of the report, said some in the military "are reluctant to admit that certain missions can be in the hands of women." For his part, Le Drian also announced that three women would join a nuclear submarine crew by 2017 — another first for France.
Women make up 15 percent of French uniformed military personnel, about the same as in the United States. But France has lagged in even counting cases of sexual harassment and assault.
The recent book "The Invisible War" exposed the breadth of the problem, chronicling 35 specific cases.
"Sexual violence in the French army has never been discussed until today," co-author Leila Milano told The Associated Press. "For 30 years, these women have been ignored, transferred, forced to quit."
Lamenting a lack of statistics, Debernardy said the era of silence must end: "We must encourage (women) to talk."