France: A licence to rape?

A lenient gang-rape verdict has prompted outcry and a debate on France's inadequate response to rape. The French media's ambivalence towards rape victims also needs to be examined.

There seems to be a feminist revival in France. The promise made by François Hollande during the presidential campaign that his new government would be 50 per cent female has been kept. The ministry of justice led by Christiane Taubira has been quick to submit a new anti-harassment law, responding to the cancellation of the existing law under Sarkozy's mandate, which caused all ongoing harassment cases to be dropped. Also, for the first time since 1986, the country has a ministry of women's rights, run by 35 year-old Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, also spokesperson to the government, who is keen to abolish prostitution. French feminist organisations, like Osez le féminisme! (Dare Feminism!), created in 2009, are going strong – one of OLF founders is even an adviser to Vallaud-Belkacem – and feminist magazine Causette, also three years old, is proving to be serious competition in the realm of women's magazines.

In such a context, what is now known as the “Créteil verdict” was met with considerable incomprehension and anger. Here's a quick summary of the events that led to it.

- Nina and Stéphanie*, now in their late twenties, claim that when they were 15 and 16 they were repeatedly raped by a group of boys in the 'cité' where they lived (a housing estate in the Parisian suburb of Fontenay-sous-Bois). The facts they narrate are not part of an isolated crime, but of long-term sexual enslavement. They recall being dragged to basements or empty staircases while boys queued up to rape them. This happened, they say, almost everyday for six months in 1999. They pressed charges in 2005.

- Seven years after the complaint, a three-week long trial took place. It was a closed hearing, as plaintiffs and accused were under 18 at the time of the events. On 11 October, the verdict saw ten of the fourteen accused walk free and four being granted lenient sentences (one year at the most). Only one man went back to jail, but only because he is waiting to be judged in another case.

- In an interview granted to French newspaper Libération after the verdict, Nina says that she was verbally abused by the now fully grown men during the trial – which went unchallenged by the court president. “Fat cow”, said for instance one of the accused, “What makes you think I would have raped you?” Stéphanie tried to kill herself three days after the start of the trial and was hospitalised for ten days. Neither of them was present at the time of the verdict.

Following the trial, various feminist organisations called for a protest to be held in front of the ministry of justice on Monday 15 October. They were not there to challenge the independence of justice, insisted 30 year-old Emmanuelle, a member of Osez le féminisme. “But justice”, she said, “is not ahistorical. It reflects the struggles of society. Sometimes it has to be fought for in the streets, especially in a country that doesn't take rape seriously.”

“What went wrong in this case? Well, pretty much everything”, said Marie-France Casalis, a jurist and member of Collectif féministe contre le viol (Feminist Collective Against Rape). And she would know: the organisation has had a telephone line dedicated to helping victims of rape and abuse for twenty seven years. “First of all, the complaint was made too late. It would have been much easier to find traces of what had happened closer to the events.” I can't help thinking it would also have prevented the proceedings from being purely word against word, or more precisely, two broken (and often absent) voices against fourteen voices, thirteen years after the events took place.

Casalis also points out that, unlike victims of domestic violence, rape victims don't benefit from a protection order. Nina, Stéphanie and their families suffered threats for years (like the time Stéphanie's father discovered a bullet in his post box). And the help that Nina received to relocate wasn't sufficient, so that she ended up returning to her home and living in the place where her family and her alleged rapists still lived. The two women never escaped the fear of reprisal.

“Most rape victims suffer post traumatic syndromes”, Casalis explains. “They forget what happened and what they did to defend themselves, because it didn't work out. You have to help them reconstruct the narrative. And that's what we do. But Nina and Stéphanie were left isolated for seven years and were not put in contact with any organisation – which is a shame. When they arrived at the trial they were in no condition to speak freely or without fear.”

Submitted to the grilling of the defence lawyers, Nina and Stéphanie crumbled. As Nina told Libération: “I tried to explain that you don't have a precise notion of time when you're being raped by twelve people at the same time. In the end I told (the defence lawyers) that if I had known I would have taken a notebook with me, to write down what the time was when each man raped me, so that I could remember it thirteen years later.” Today, the young woman is considered to be significantly disabled (an 80% disability, according to the French standards).

Following the verdict, feminist organisations have launched an online petition, called “Rape: Shame Must Switch Sides”. They demand the creation of a new law and have asked to meet with François Hollande to discuss violence against women. They insist on the need to implement prevention (which, they say, is the most cost-effective method) and ask that police and judiciary personnel be trained to respond adequately to rape. They request that the protection order that covers domestic violence victims be extended to rape victims. They also denounce an injustice less known by the general public: because criminal courts are congested, rape is often recategorised into sexual assault, a less serious offence, which is judged in a lower court and can only be punished by five years of imprisonment, as opposed to fifteen years for rape. They demand that rape be only judged in criminal courts.

Nina and Stéphanie's case reminds us that in France only one rape in 11 is reported, and that only 2% of rapists are convicted. “Of course, sending rapists to jail doesn't solve everything”, says Emmanuelle. Yet, this case seems to reveal that France is failing when it comes to dealing with rape. For Hollande and Vallaud-Belkacem, it's a test. Let's hope they will pass it.

Lastly, a word on something that keeps bothering me: one cannot evoke this trial without mentioning the high level of attention the media has brought to the story. But because the trial was held in a closed hearing we will never really know what happened in the court room. This creates a toxic combination. All we know is what the victims, their counsel, and the defendants' counsel have told the press. Each version differs greatly, which has led to exaggerations and imprecision. At the protest following the verdict, I was told Stéphanie filed a complaint in 1999 and that the fact that it was dropped was responsible for the debacle of this trial. However, it was actually reported that she filed a complaint for rape in 1996 (in a different case) and acknowledged during the trial it was a wrongful accusation.

Police and judiciary personnel may not the only ones who need training on how to deal with rape. What about the media? Because they love a good sensationalist headline – and good hits on Google –  many publications have kept using the term 'tournantes' (which refers to the act of passing a girl around, a bit like you pass a joint) even though it is a term used by rapists. The mediatisation of this rape trial shows a degree of ambivalence towards the victims where feelings of horror, fascination and shame are indistinctly mixed. And it would be tempting to forget that a poignant narrative – such as Nina's words when describing her ordeal to the newspapers – does not constitute proof in the eye of justice. Yes, Nina and Stéphanie's case shows that everything needs to be done to help rape victims speak up, but the media also has a responsibility to speak sensitively about rape.

*This alias was used during the trial.

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. This post first appeared on openDemocracy 50.50 here.

Topless activists of the Ukrainian women movement Femen demonstrate in front of the justice ministry in Paris. Photograph: Getty Images

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French freelance journalist. She reports on social issues and contributes to the LRB, the Guardian, Index on Censorship and French Slate, with a particular interest in France and Russia. She is on Twitter as @valeria_wants.

 

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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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