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This French app aims to fight sexual harassment on beaches

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Can an app help fight sexual harassment on public beaches? The southern French city of Marseille thinks so. Reporter Rebecca Rosman went to find out more.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: It's one of those crowded summer days at the Catalans beach in central Marseille. But big crowds can sometimes breed tense situations. Take 28-year-old Axelle Groult, who came here to tan with her friend.

AXELLE GROULT: I just had, like, untied my top, but I wasn't even doing, like, any topless tanning. We're together, so two girls.

ROSMAN: It took only a matter of seconds before she started being harassed by a group of 14-year-old boys.

GROULT: And they were like, oh, we can see your [expletive]. We can see your [expletive]. Like, fix it. Fix your top.

ROSMAN: From unwanted advances to unsolicited comments about her body, Glut says she has experienced various forms of sexual harassment at the beach.

GROULT: I mean, it's a daily thing, I think. I mean, personally, I choose not to react most of the time because it's too dangerous.

ROSMAN: Except now there's an app for that. It's called Safer Plage, or Safer Beach. After a successful pilot experiment last summer, it's now being used on four beaches across the city. Users anonymously download the app with a smartphone. If a situation occurs, they can then select between three options, says Justine Noel with the nonprofit Orane, which is behind the project.

JUSTINE NOEL: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: I'm being bothered, I'm being harassed, or I'm in danger. The app then sends out a notification to a trained mediator employed by the app to patrol the beaches and intervene when necessary.

NOEL: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "And then they click on the notification," she says, "using the app's geolocation tool to spot victims. And they can also communicate with them directly using a chat function."

The city of Marseille has put more than $125,000 into training 16 mediators, who are taught how to intervene in situations ranging from excessive flirtation to domestic violence. Elias Belhocini manages the team of mediators. He says, for example, they recently dealt with a man who was catcalling a woman while she was sunbathing.

ELIAS BELHOCINI: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "First we talked to the victim," he says, "and then moved on to the perpetrator about the inappropriateness of his advances." In fact, catcalling isn't just inappropriate in France. In 2018, harassment in public spaces was ruled illegal. Fines can be more than $4,000. Activists have applauded that law for acting as a deterrent, and Justine Noel believes apps like hers are having a similar effect in stopping would-be harassers.

NOEL: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: "The beach can be a very vulnerable place," she says, "especially for women. The goal of the app is to help them defend themselves a bit more easily."

But getting people to use the app has been a challenge. Noel says that while more than 900 people downloaded the app in the space of just one month this summer, there have been less than five alerts made in that same period.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

ROSMAN: Back at the beach, I ask Axelle Glut if she would ever consider using an app like Safer Plage, to which she says, it's complicated.

GROULT: So, I mean, I would feel kind of like a fool, just, like, pressing a button and waiting for someone to show up and be like, oh, he was dressed like this, and he looked like that. So it's just too late, and I think it's easier to just move on from that.

NOEL: (Speaking French).

ROSMAN: Justine Noel agrees that it can be hard to have that reflex in the moment, but she wants people to know that just moving on doesn't have to be the only solution.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Marseille.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rebecca Rosman