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
Getty
Show Hide image

France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

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