Engineering student Marie Laguerre was walking home on July 30 last year when her life changed forever. A man, known only as Firas M., harassed her outside a cafe close to Buttes-Chaumont park in Paris' 19th arrondissement. He hissed at her and made sexualized comments about her appearance. Laguerre tried to walk away, but he was intent on intimidating her.
After Laguerre shouted “Ta gueule!” [Shut up!] at him, Firas reached over the terrace to a nearby cafe table, picked up an ashtray, and threw it at her. Thankfully, he missed. He then struck her on the face with his hand, in front of a cafe full of shocked bystanders.
After the assault, Laguerre—then a 22-year-old college student—shared CCTV footage of the assault with the words: “I am sick of feeling unsafe walking in the street, things need to change, and they need to change now.” She had no idea that as the #MeToo movement gained pace across the world, her story would become a global talking point and signifier of the urgent need for societal reform. Footage of her assault was replayed by news outlets around the world, and politicians including the Mayor of Paris and the French equalities minister expressed shock and outrage online.
“When it happened I didn’t think too much about it," she tells me. "The media gave me this opportunity so I took the chance and made the best of it." Six months on, the video has nearly seven million views. Her attacker, whose surname was never publicly disclosed, was jailed for six months for aggravated violence with an object used as a weapon, and fined €2,000 ($2,2290).
"It felt really good getting justice,” Laguerre says. It was only after the court reached its verdict that she realized what a toll the case had taken on her. "The next day I felt light and peaceful.”
Whilst the case is over, its impact has irrevocably shaped her. Last year, French newspaper La Monde found that one in four women in France have experienced sexism, sexual violence, or assault. Laguerre is aware she is one of many victims, and that most women fail to get the same publicity or legal resolution she achieved. After all, her attacker was sent to jail.“The state recognized me as a victim so I’m very lucky,” she points out. “I had a very specific story and I had a video that was all over the media and got pressure from the public. The video and the media made a huge difference in my outcome.”
She notes that the fact her assault was captured on CCTV, and in front of so many witnesses, was instrumental in achieving justice. Without these tools, victims are too often discredited: their accounts dismissed as there's no physical evidence or bystanders to corroborate their claims. “Rapists are still not convicted because of this reasoning," Laguerre says. "So my case is one step in the right direction, as it’s so rare a man is sentenced for something.”
It was this observation which led to Laguerre creating a forum for French-speaking women all over the world to share their everyday experiences of sexism, violence, harassment, and assault. Laguerre created Nous Toutes Harcelement [“We Are All Harassed”] in August 2018 as an answer to the helplessness she felt for other women unable to rely on the law to achieve justice.
So far, over 100 women have shared their stories. Laguerre reads nearly all the submissions and notes that since her incident and #MeToo she’s noticed more women are transparent and open about their experiences of sexism. She hopes that Nous Toutes Harcelement will one day become a specialist platform to provide support to victims of sexual harassment and assault, connecting survivors to legal specialists or mental health advisors in a safe, secure space.
Laguerre follows in the footsteps of British campaigner Laura Bates, who founded her Everyday Sexism Project in 2012, documenting crowd-sourced examples of sexism from across the world. But despite the work of activists such as Laguerre and Bates, sexual harassment and violence remains a daily part of the lived experience of many women the world over. “We don’t have freedom. We still need that as it happens everyday,” Laguerre says. “We’re one step closer because of [campaigns such as] Me Too.”
For now, Laguerre's intent on using the media profile she acquired under horrific circumstances to fight for change. At the same time, she can't escape the fact that her own, brutal assault took place so recently: and as it took place close to her home, she has to walk past the scene of her trauma every day. For now, Laguerre is taking some time out to rest and recuperate, before returning to activism stronger and re-engaged. “I want to keep fighting!" she tells me. "But for now, I need a break.”