PARIS (Reuters) - France repealed a sexual harassment law on Friday on the grounds that the definition of the crime was too vague, sparking renewed debate of an issue put into the spotlight by the arrest of one-time presidential hopeful Dominique Strauss-Kahn last year.
Some women's groups said the decision, by France's highest constitutional body, would leave victims without legal protection until a new law is penned, while others argued an improved law could lead to more convictions.
Former International Monetary Fund chief Strauss-Kahn was arrested last May, accused of sexual assault by a hotel maid. The charges were later dropped but the ensuing scandal cast a harsh light on a practice in France of hushing up or shrugging off sexual advances by powerful figures. Feminists demanded a change of attitude.
Strauss-Kahn had already been rapped over a sexual relationship with a subordinate in 2008, who said she felt pressured to sleep with him, and French writer Tristane Banon filed a complaint after the New York case alleging he tried to assault her in 2003.
Junior civil service minister Georges Tron was forced to resign in June after two women who had worked for him filed sexual harassment complaints. One said the debate sparked by the Strauss-Kahn scandal had prompted her to break her silence.
Friday's repeal of the law should eventually lead to clearer guidelines for judges. But the fact the measure goes into effect immediately means that all ongoing sexual harassment cases not yet ruled on in court will be thrown out.
MONTHS OF DELAY
It could be months - if not longer - before new legislation is adopted given that a new National Assembly, which would write the new law, will only be elected in June, following Sunday's presidential election runoff.
"Article 222-33 of the penal code calls for the misdemeanor of sexual harassment to be punishable but the component elements of the infraction are not sufficiently defined," the Constitutional Council wrote in its ruling.
A collective of more than a dozen feminist groups said victims had been "abandoned by the justice system".
"The message of impunity aimed at harassers is revolting," they wrote in a statement.
However, the European Association Against Violence Towards Women at Work, an advocacy group, had argued to the council that the repealed law was ineffective, producing an "insignificant" total of 54 convictions in 2009.
Friday's ruling came after France's harassment law was contested for being too broad by a former deputy mayor in the southern Rhone region who was sentenced last year to three months in prison and a 5,000 euro ($6,600) fine for sexually harassing three employees.
Social Cohesion Minister Roselyne Bachelot said she would pressure the new parliament to act quickly to fill the legal void.
And a spokesman for man tipped to be France's next president wrote in a statement that: "Francois Hollande, if elected, will commit to a new law on sexual harassment being written up and registered as quickly as possible in the parliamentary agenda."
The former law, in force since 1992, originally defined an instigator of sexual harassment as someone abusing his or her authority but it was modified in 2002 to broaden the definition.
The new version states: "The act of harassing others with the goal of obtaining sexual favors is punishable by one year of imprisonment and 15,000 euros in fines."
Decisions of the Constitutional Council, which rules on the constitutionality of French laws, cannot be appealed.
(Reporting By Thierry Leveque; Writing by Alexandria Sage; Editing by Catherine Bremer and Pravin Char)