PARIS — In the icy winter of 1905, many of the women who hand-painted the world-famous Limoges vases and figurines went on strike in France — not because they were poorly paid or toiled long hours, but because they were prey to the factory overseer’s sexual urges.
Their protest was against the custom, inherited from the Middle Ages, in which bosses (or feudal lords) compelled sexual services from the young women who worked for them.
A different kind of protest against sexual abuse is underway in France and America in the wake of the accusations of abuse by the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. These new protesters are armed with hashtags like #MeToo and #BalanceTonPorc, or “Out Your Pig.”
But not everyone is so sure that the current wave of outrage on social media will be enough to change behavior and attitudes that have resisted generations of efforts in France.
“It is not at all the same thing to tweet in 140 characters and to bring a complaint in court,” said Marilyn Baldeck, a legal professional who specializes in helping Frenchwomen bring claims of sexual harassment.
Other recent watersheds in France brought little relief for women in their wake. The sexual assault trial that derailed the presidential hopes of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, crossed a threshold in France for making the private lives of public figures fair game for the news media.
But the sheer number of women in France currently going public with the details of their unwanted sexual encounters makes clear that the private behavior of powerful men — or, for that matter, less-powerful men — did not necessarily change.
Similarly, after a flurry of sexual harassment allegations roiled France’s National Assembly last year, some of the laws approved by the same body may have raised the hurdles for women to prosecute harassers.
Lawyers and experts have criticized recent changes in the labor law, ordered by President Emmanuel Macron, for backsliding and say that, at every level, the administration’s response has been either nonexistent or inadequate.
Some women in France feel so aggrieved that they started a petition addressed to Mr. Macron, urging him to treat sexual harassment as a national emergency; it gained 100,000 signatures in its first three days online.
“What’s happening is a revolt,” said Geneviève Fraisse, a French philosopher, writer on feminist thought and director of research at the government’s prestigious National Center for Scientific Research.
“It’s the same thing that happened for abortion in the 1970s and for equal pay in the 1990s,” she added. “It’s a catalyst. It’s not something that can be ignored; it’s an historic moment.”
But there remain big obstacles, cultural and legal, that discourage women from complaining about harassment in the workplace. A culture of silence has long persisted around such behavior, and is only now being broken.
France’s reluctance to move more aggressively against sexual harassment reflects deeply rooted ideas about sexual relations and the relative power between men and women, said Joan Scott, a professor emeritus of intellectual and cultural history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., who has studied French social and sexual mores.
“There is a longstanding commitment to the notion that the French do gender relations differently — especially from prudish Americans — and that has to do with the French understanding of seduction,” she said. “Seduction is the alternative to thinking about it as sexual harassment.”
Christine Bard, a professor of feminism at the University of Angers, echoed those thoughts. There is an “idealization of seduction ‘à la Française,’ and that anti-feminism has become almost part of the national identity and is seen as a retort to Anglo-American culture,” she said.
“The desire to distance ourselves from a ‘puritanism’ which is ‘Protestant,’ ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘feminist’ plays well notably in intellectual milieus, and anti-Americanism has been a constant dimension of anti-feminism in France for more than a century,” Ms. Bard said.
Sexual harassment in the workplace was made subject to legal sanction in France starting only in 1992, in the wake of Anita Hill’s accusations during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, then a Supreme Court nominee.
That controversy riveted France, which created, at about the same time, a civil and a criminal offense of sexual harassment. But the reach of those laws was not matched by vigorous enforcement, labor lawyers say.
The effect has been to discourage women from pursuing cases, as reflected in a 2014 survey for France’s Defender of Rights, a government office that helps people attempting to enforce their civil rights.
The survey found that at least one in five working women said they had confronted sexual harassment. But only 30 percent of them had reported it to management, and only 5 percent ever brought it before a judge. Far more said they had worked in an environment where there were sexist or crude jokes.
Ms. Baldeck, the legal professional who works with the European Association Against Violence Against Women at Work and who specializes in such cases, notes that many women do not pursue claims “because it is too difficult since the judiciary is so poorly equipped to deal with these complaints.”
“In France, 93 percent of complaints of criminal sexual harassment are not followed up on,” she said, because of insufficient staffing and funding.
There is no French equivalent of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the United States, which can bring cases but which also works directly with companies to resolve them through internal measures before they go to court.
Moreover, in 40 percent of French harassment cases, the person who complained was punished by management rather than the accused. Some women were blocked as they tried to seek higher positions, while others did not have their contracts renewed or were fired.
While many of the men accused of offenses in the United States and Britain have been forced to resign, in France, it remains the norm in both the public and private sectors for those accused of offenses to stay in their jobs.
That puts victims in a difficult situation and can mean that their harassment may continue or even worsen once a complaint is made. The situation has been particularly tough for women trying to break into traditionally male jobs in the French government bureaucracy.
The government’s internal administrative tribunal is deliberating the case of a 35-year-old who in 2009 became one of the first women to be admitted to an elite branch of the police.
One of two women assigned to a division of 150 special police officers, she charges that she was quickly ostracized and made the target of repeated sexual jokes.
It started with the men insisting that they kiss the policewomen hello on both cheeks; she wanted to shake hands. When she insisted, some of the men refused to do so.
One of her colleagues made masturbating gestures in front of her to insult her, and one called her a “dirty whore,” she said. After she was injured while on a mission, she did not return to her job.
In defense of her colleagues, the Ministry of Interior countered that “smutty jokes” were to be expected in a force where people worked closely together and de facto “lacked privacy and where the work culture is exclusively masculine.”
It added that the missions were difficult and that some male police officers had not “entirely assimilated” a new code of conduct with the introduction of women.
But, still, what she had experienced did not rise to the level of sexual harassment, the ministry said in a written statement.
In a different case, even after four female cleaners sued their employer, H. Reinier, a subcontractor working for France’s national rail company, their harasser kept his job while one of the women was fired.
But such obstacles are not new. The female pottery painters who protested their mistreatment at the Limoges porcelain factories in 1905 won their fight only after the strikes turned violent and the army opened fire, killing one man and wounding four others.
The local news media at the time described a funeral procession of as many as 30,000 workers, “many of them women, who carried flowers in their hands as a last homage to someone who had died fighting for their dignity.”