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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.

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

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.