Feminist protests swept France throughout February, in support of “Julie” — a pseudonym used by the French press to protect the identity of a young woman, now at the centre of a legal challenge to change French age of consent law. Julie’s case puts pressure on French legislators to introduce an age of consent law, which currently does not exist in the country. This fight has put the French elite on trial, with many powerful figures in France having opposed age of consent legislation for decades. It will have enormous ramifications on how France’s bizarre historical tolerance for child sexual abuse is viewed in years to come.
Julie was raped by 20 firefighters, over a hundred times, between the ages of 13 and 15. The men, who all belong to fire stations across the Parisian area, groomed Julie over a number of years after one of them met her while on duty, coming to her aid when she suffered a panic attack that led to breathing problems and fainting. Unlike in North America and other European countries, French firefighters often staff ambulances, aiding paramedics in their duties. That is how the original firefighter, Pierre C., met Julie, back in 2008. Then in his 20s, Pierre retrieved Julie’s contact information from the intervention report, before circulating it to his colleagues, which clearly stated her age: she had just turned 13 years old. From the initial intervention report, the men knew everything about Julie’s condition and that she was on heavy sedative medication as a result.
Pierre contacted Julie on social media and began grooming her, visiting her at home under the pretext of checking on her health and recovery progress, which he used as an opportunity to rape her. After the first assault, Julie began suffering from social anxiety and depression that became so severe she dropped out of school and was placed on anxiolytics, antidepressants, and neuroleptics. For the following two years, she had numerous anxiety attacks manifesting in tetany (seizures and paralysis), which required the intervention of the firemen, acting as paramedics, who came to her bedside more than 130 times. Every time Julie required medical attention, the paramedics were called, and the fireman attending the scene took the opportunity to rape and abuse Julie, again and again. For two years Julie was targeted in this way — sexually abused when she was in need of medical assistance.
The firemen had to fill out an intervention report each time, which documented Julie’s treatment, her history of multiple suicide attempts, self-harm, and tetanic seizures. It was clear how vulnerable she was, but despite all of this, a total of 20 firefighters regularly forced and coerced Julie into intercourse.
When Julie was 14, several firemen gang raped Julie at one of their apartments while watching pornography. She had just left a child psychiatric ward, only to return almost immediately, due to being retraumatized by the assault. There, at the child psychiatric unit, Julie was raped by a firefighter who came to visit her, again under the pretext of checking on her health. This happened routinely, as this man, as well as other firefighters, would visit Julie in hospital and at her mother’s home, sexually assaulting her under the guise of checking up on her recovery.
Two years after this ordeal began, during a break from her sedative medication, Julie told her parents what happened. Julie’s family contacted the police, but the police did not take the complaint seriously. Julie was asked inappropriate questions by police, leading her to implicate herself as a participant rather than a victim.
The police determined what had happened constituted “sexual violation” (which under French law roughly means sexual misconduct, referring to a sexual assault that is very minor), not rape — a decision that garnered international attention and outcry.
In her first ever statement to the public, Julie had a message for her rapists: “You thought that you killed me, but now it’s your turn to shake.” Her words have called others to courage, leading to online condemnation of the perpetrators and women filling the streets, demanding justice.
In practice, the lack of an age of consent law in France means it must be proven, in court, that a minor did not consent. They are treated just like adult victims are. In France, victims of rape and sexual assault are required to provide evidence they were forced, even if they were underage at the time. So, a sexually abused six-year-old must still testify in court that they did not consent to rape. One way perpetrators secure their impunity is by targeting those who are less likely to be able to speak out about what happened — in this case, a young girl suffering from fits and on strong sedatives. Because children are developing and figuring out right from wrong, which adults are trustworthy and which are not, they make excellent targets for sexual abuse.
The police decided to act, but not against all of the men. Of the 20 firefighters, only three were ever investigated and only charged with“sexual violation.” The three men were charged under a law that stipulates it is an offence for those in positions of authority to engage in sex with individuals younger than 18. In other words, the police determined Julie was consenting, but that the men should not have had sex with her because of their positions as authority figures.
Under French law, rape convictions can lead to two decades in prison, but those charged with “sexual violation” can only receive a maximum sentence of up to seven years. During the 10 years of proceedings following the assaults, Julie made several suicide attempts, including throwing herself out of a window, leaving her physically disabled. Julie’s lawyers are working to appeal the original judgement, asking for a new trial, and trying to ensure all 20 men face rape charges.
As a precursor to the “Julie” protests, France saw an explosion of support for incest victims through the #MeTooInceste hashtag that emerged in response to the publication of a book by lawyer Camille Kouchner called, La familia grande. In the book, Kouchner writes that her brother was abused by their step-father, Oliver Duhamel, a prominent political figure and well-known intellectual, who led the prestigious National Political Science Foundation until recently, stepping down in light of the allegations. After the book came out, #MeTooInceste saw tens of thousands share their stories.
For a long time, France has had its own peculiar and regressive set of sexual politics. Elite men have long been permitted to pass off sexual exploitation and abuse as sexual liberation, presenting predation as progressive and as a superiorist way of life — a part of male culture in France. This cultural context is why the #MeToo movement never launched in France like it did in many other parts of the world. There was an immediate backlash when it began to burgeon, with a collective of 100 women, including actress Catherine Deneuve, signing a letter in support of “freedom to bother” (“liberté d’importuner,” in French — directly translated as “freedom to annoy”), expressing concern that #MeToo “represses sexual expression and freedom.”
It is France, after all, that gave refuge to Roman Polanski when he fled the United States in 1978 after being accused of anally raping a 13-year-old girl. Today, Polanski not only lives a quiet life in Paris, but was awarded a Cesar (the French equivalent of an Oscar) just last year.
Netflix recently released Room 2806, a documentary about Dominic Strauss-Khan, the high profile politician who almost certainly would have become French President had he not been accused of raping a migrant hotel worker in New York. Strauss-Khan did not face imprisonment, and the worker was attacked by the prosecution as untrustworthy, accused of fabricating the assault for financial compensation. More women came forward with accusations against Strauss-Khan, yet in France he enjoyed the support of his colleagues and the general public, who saw him merely as a “womanizer” — a “sensual man.” All societies have a rape culture, but France’s public discourse is notably impervious to men who sexually aggress or rape women.
The French feminist movement fought back, protesting Polanski’s award outside the Cesars in 2020 and, now, with a growing army of women, is determined to challenge a legal system that believes children can consent to sex with adult men.
Feminists in France have also responded by producing swathes of literature detailing the harms and long-lasting trauma caused by child sexual abuse. Adélaïde Bon’s, Little Girl on the Ice Flow, and Vanessa Springora’s Consent — which details the way another French celebrated pedocriminal, Gabriel Matzneff, groomed her — have become important records of these debilitating impacts. A number of feminist psychotherapists and psychiatrists focusing on trauma, such as Muriel Salmona, have emerged to work on child sexual abuse, in part a reaction to the fact “paedocriminality” (a term used by French feminists to emphasize the criminal nature of child sex abuse, not yet realized in law) is not recognized as the serious and traumatizing harm that it is. While American universities debate whether literary texts require trigger warnings and whether micro aggressions are traumatic, French legislators have not even decided that the sexual abuse of children induces trauma and should therefore be criminalized.
France’s legal approach to child sexual abuse differs from almost every other European country and is embedded in its history. In the 1970s, the French intellectual elite petitioned against age of consent laws. In 1977, the aforementioned pedocrimial writer Gabriel Matzneff started a petition against reforming French laws to introduce an age of consent (Matzneff admitted in his diary, Un Galop d’Enfer, published in 1985, that he regularly had sex with underage boys while in the Philippines, writing,”Sometimes, I’ll have as many as four boys — from eight to 14 years old — in my bed at the same time, and I’ll engage in the most exquisite lovemaking with them.”) Notable figures like Michel Foucault, Jean-Paul Sartre, Louise Althusser, Roland Bathes, Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and even lauded feminist Simone de Beauvoir, all signed onto Matzneff’s petition. De Beauviour later stated she regretted signing the petition and was under the belief it would help young women, not young children, to have a free sexual life without judgement. Today, the ideas of those philosophers dominate the Western academy’s humanities, with little attention paid to their peculiar rendition of children and adult sexuality, even less still the wider context of French social norms that at best are apathetic on the issue of child sexual abuse and at worst, deny its harm.
Julie’s case is seminal as this kind of grooming has been accepted as normal in France for so long, and because it has the potential to transform France’s tacit approval of peadocriminality.
The French justice minister Eric Dupond-Moretti (who, as a lawyer, represented numerous men accused of rape, pedophilia, and pimping in court), recently declared that, “An act of sexual penetration by an adult on a minor under 15 will be considered a rape.” But this is not the first time the Macron government has promised such legislation, only for it to get lost in bureaucratic processes — Marlène Schiappa, the Secretary of State for Gender Equality at the time, said her government was considering age of consent laws in 2018, but nothing ever came to fruition.
If French women succeed in turning the tide against this historical backdrop, it will be a monumental sea change. The entire edifice of French sexual politics will be challenged, meaning countless victims will at least be able to access recognition that the abuse they suffered as children was wrong and caused harm. It is recognition of harm — not just punishment for offenders — that so many women seek in the eyes of the law.
The outcome of Julie’s case is expected on March 17th, 2021.
With thanks to Francie Foster and Fabienne El-Khoury, who provided additional information and insight for this article.
Typhaine D is a feminist performer, writer, coach, and activist currently on a threatrical tour across France.