Nina was brutalised by her rapists, and then French justice assaulted her again

For six months, a pack of boys told Nina to turn up at certain times to be raped. Yesterday, the harshest sentence given to her attackers was a year in jail, and several defendants were acquitted. How is this justice?

So there you are, a 16-year-old girl on your way home from a night out at the cinema. You live in Fontenay-sous-Bois, part of the Parisian banlieue, which means “suburbs” but also so much more, because these are the places that ring the city, where authorities have pushed immigrants, poverty and trouble. But you have avoided trouble so far.

You are a good student. You are pretty, slim, with long dark hair, and you are tomboyish, preferring tracksuits, preferring not to stand out, happy to do well at school then come home to your mother and younger brother. But on this particular evening you cross a group of young lads. They are smoking weed and drinking. You get too close; the leader grabs you round the neck and drags you into a nearby apartment block and orders you to “coucher” (sleep with them). You are a virgin and of course you say no, so he hits you hard in the face, then rapes you first vaginally, then anally, then forces you to give him head, right after the anal rape.

He is only the first. The rest of the group take their turn, patiently raping, despite your crying and vomiting. Somehow you get through it, but the next day they are waiting for you at the bottom of your block, and they do it again. They know where you live, they threaten to set fire to your flat, rape your mother, harm your brother. You believe them so when they tell you to come back the next day to be raped, you do. You couldn’t say how many rapists there were. Sometimes half a dozen, sometimes twenty-five, sometimes a line of boys waiting. Such patient rapists.

That is how it is every day for the next six months, and it continues despite your vomiting and passing out, in disgusting stairwells and empty garages. It continues though your mother asks you why you are showering up to ten times a day, but you daren’t tell her. Then during one session in a garage, another lad you know arrives and yells at all the rapists to leave, and they do, astonishingly, and the next day they don’t come back. Some still beat you when they see you but it’s not until one beats you unconscious that you are sent to hospital bleeding and finally tell the truth.

Except that's not the truth, according to French justice. Because that is the story of Nina, a young Parisian woman, who dared to take her rapists to trial in the Cours d’Assizes of Val de Marne, and who has just been told, along with her co-defendant, another young rape victim given the pseudonym “Stephanie”, that the French state believes the young men who say that she wanted it, that she was consenting, that they weren’t there.

How else to understand the sentences? Six acquittals. Four prison sentences, but three suspended. The severest penalty was one year in jail. Twelve months for six months of multiple, ferocious, sustained pack rape.

I prefer the term pack rape, because gang rapes do not always involve street gangs, but they always involve packs. The French have other names for it: the law talks of viols en réunion, which sounds too much like a picnic. Sometimes they are called viols collectifs. Or there is tournante, a word I discovered in 2003 via a film shot by a former high school teacher in his former high school in Sarcelles, that featured a tournante, or pass-round. You pass round (faire tourner) a joint; you pass round (faire tourner) a girl. They are both legitimate booty, if they have transgressed the viciously misogynistic codes that can arise when you take patriarchal religion, poverty and fury and mix them together. Feminists call this intersectionality: when gender and class and other issues intersect, and women are damaged by the consequences. I call it horrific.

Back in 2003, I interviewed girls who told me that they couldn’t wear a skirt to school because that meant you were a slag. They knew of a girl who had worn one anyway and been attacked by 30 boys in the school toilets. They couldn’t wear lipstick. If they fell in love, their boyfriends generously shared them amongst their friends. A helpful police officer in one northern Parisian suburb showed me police dossiers of a dizzying darkness. I watch a video deposition of Elodie, 14, who answered the door one evening and five minutes later had been shoved into her dining room and had the first of five penises in her mouth. When she gives her testimony, her hands never leave her face. Solange, 17, whose boyfriend held her while his friends raped her. When she dumped him, her next boyfriend did the same. One girl I read about was raped 86 times. I wonder now if that was Nina.

Then Samira Bellil wrote a book called Dans L’Enfer des Tournantes (In the Hell of Tournantes). Samira was a pretty girl with corkscrew curls and cornflower blue eyes, of north African background, who fell in love at 14 with a man who soon delivered her to three of his mates, then again and again. Like Nina, Samira went off the rails, into foster homes, drugs and delinquency. And like Nina, she found the extraordinary courage to denounce her rapists, then to write a book and put her face on the cover, “because my publisher says I have a pretty face”.

Samira died of stomach cancer in 2004 – brutalised internally, I am sure – at the age of 31 but the feisty organization Ni Putes ni Soumises (Neither Sluts nor Doormats) that she helped found is still going, and still angry. They are still needed. When I asked French feminists in 2003 why they weren’t screaming about tournantes, Julia Kristeva sent me an old paper she had written about “the damage to psychic space”. Are things better now? The contemptuous verdicts in Nina’s trial have got widespread attention. Ministers have commented. The legal teams of Nina and her co-defendant ‘Stephanie’ called the verdict “a judicial shipwreck”, whatever that means. But the case took 13 years to get to trial. In all that time, Nina was given little financial or psychological help. She was moved away from her rapists, but the hostels, pillars and posts made her desperate enough to move back home to live with her mother.

But her mother still lives in Fontenay-sous-Bois, and her rapists still live there too. That is where she probably went after that verdict, to the apartment blocks and garages where she was raped, where her rapists still hang out, where an outraged comment from a minister is no defence.

She was brutalised by her rapists, and then French justice assaulted her some more.

 

Rose George is a journalist and writer. She tweets @rosegeorge3

The Parisian banlieues. Photo: Getty
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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt