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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage