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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.