In the spring of 2008, shortly after her 13th birthday, Julie suffered from a seizure at her middle school in a suburb south of Paris. A teacher called the Paris Fire Brigade, and firefighters took her to a nearby hospital. In the coming months, her seizures worsened, and she slipped into a depression, dropping out of school. Julie—the pseudonym her family has used to draw attention to the case while protecting her privacy—holed herself up in her room, engaged in self-harm, and attempted suicide numerous times. Julie’s doctors prescribed a cocktail of antidepressants, neuroleptics, and anti-anxiety medications, but the seizures continued and became more frequent.
Over the next two years, Corinne Leriche, Julie’s mother, called the firefighters some 130 times in response to Julie’s seizures, she said. And over that same period—from April 2008 to July 2010, at which point Julie was placed in a psychiatric hospital for three weeks—Julie says she was raped repeatedly by a group of 20 firefighters who responded to the family’s calls for help. Sometimes it was just one of them; on other occasions, several attacked her at once. For two years, her phone number circulated among members of the Paris Fire Brigade, a part of the military and the fire and rescue service for Paris that dispatches firefighters in emergencies. “My daughter became their sex object, when they were sent to protect her,” Leriche told VICE World News.
It wasn’t until Julie left the psychiatric hospital in 2010, and had stopped taking prescription medication, that she told her mother what had happened. They immediately filed a complaint with the police, accusing 20 firefighters of raping Julie, three of whom they accused of gang rape. When the police didn’t open an investigation after six months, Leriche contacted the head of the Paris Fire Brigade. After an internal investigation, three of the 20 were arrested in February 2011, and put on trial for gang rape of a minor. In 2019, a judge reduced the charges; the three firefighters insisted that Julie had consented. She and Leriche appealed the decision to restore the rape charges, but in late November, 2020, a court upheld the 2019 decision. The case reached the appeals court on Wednesday and Julie’s lawyers argued that all 20 firefighters should be charged with rape. A final decision is expected on March 17.
“My daughter became their sex object, when they were sent to protect her.”
For more than a decade, Julie has argued that she did not consent to sex with any of the firefighters; in addition to suffering from severe depression, she was only 13 when the violence began. But in France, there is no minimum age for sexual consent, and Julie’s case is the latest episode in an escalating reckoning over what activists call the country’s refusal to protect children from sexual violence. For months, her supporters have staged protests and mobilized on social media with the hashtag “Justice for Julie”—to draw attention not only to her case, they say, but to a legal system that has for decades been complicit in the sexualization of children.
When Leriche and Julie filed a complaint with the police in August 2010, the officers asked Julie if she had said ‘No’ when the firefighters instigated sex. “She said she didn’t say ‘no,’ but that she couldn’t defend herself,” Leriche told me. “They said, if you didn’t say no, it’s not rape.”
Advocates say Julie’s experience is common, and that filing a complaint for rape in France is a nightmarish process. “Instead of opening an investigation, the police strategy is to jostle the accuser, to be sure she isn’t lying,” said Fatima Ben-Omar, an activist and cofounder of Les effronté·es, a feminist advocacy group.
The three firefighters whom Julie accused of gang raping her were ultimately charged with "sexual infraction." The remaining 17, whom she also alleges raped her between 2008 and 2010, face no charges. “She was incredibly vulnerable, and just 13, 14, when it happened,” her mother said. “She was still a child. They saw her with scars on her wrists, they knew the medication she was on. How, in that state, could she have given consent?”
According to Muriel Salmona, a psychiatrist and president of the Traumatic Memory and Victimology Association, an advocacy group for victims of sexual violence, police investigate the victim, rather than the accused. When it comes to children, this can involve reading through social media messages to determine whether there was consent. A judge concluded that one of her clients, a 10-year-old girl, had consented to sex because in text messages she used sexualized language, she said.
The three firefighters whom Julie accused of gang raping her were ultimately charged with "sexual infraction." The remaining 17, whom she also alleges raped her between 2008 and 2010, face no charges.
French professionals from psychiatrists to police officers lack the training necessary to help victims of childhood abuse, Salmona added. “There’s no understanding of the traumatic effects of sexual violence,” both in terms of problems it can cause later in life, and in terms of how trauma affects a victim’s ability to testify. Victims, especially at a young age, can appear disengaged or absent, “which judges mistake for consent,” she explained. “If they weren’t screaming or crying, the judge will say, well, then they didn’t protest, and so they consented.”
That’s how Julie’s experience played out. In a recent interview with French news site Médiapart, she recalled being “in such a dissociated state that I almost had no reaction” to questioning, she said. “And the only reactions I had—I was blamed that they weren’t strong enough, and they couldn’t understand that I hadn’t consented. Because I hadn’t yelled out the window, because I didn’t physically fight them, it meant that I had consented.”
Leriche believes that her daughter’s case not only reflects the law’s failure to protect children, but the judicial system’s automatic defense of state institutions. “It sends the message that if you are in the French military, if you are protected by the state, you can commit crimes with impunity,” she said. That 17 of the 20 men Julie named in her complaint have remained free—and were not even the subject of an investigation—”shows how far the state will go to protect the military.”
Over the course of the decade-long legal dispute, none of the remaining 17 responders’ phones or computers were seized; they were questioned only as witnesses in the case. Yet they admitted to having been in contact with Julie over social media, and two admitted to having participated in group sex with her, during which they presented themselves as members of the Paris Fire Brigade in uniform. Julie’s attorneys argue that, at minimum, that should lead to charges of sexual infraction, because she was younger than 15 when the encounters took place. And based on the 2018 law’s criterion of “abuse of vulnerability,” they argue, it should constitute rape: Julie was clearly in a vulnerable state.
“It sends the message that if you are in the French military, if you are protected by the state, you can commit crimes with impunity.”
“They say they didn’t know how old she was,” Leriche said. “But they had her medical papers, they were in a position of authority over her. That’s what’s so scandalous, and why her case is beginning to draw attention.”
In her 40 years of working on cases of sexual aggression against children, Emmanuelle Piet, president of the Feminist Collective Against Rape, has found that the reflex is always to defend the institution: “At schools, for example, the impulse was to say, we can’t blame the teacher, that would be an embarrassment. It’s the same for the Paris Fire Brigade, which is perceived as a representative of France, part of its magnificent elite Army corps.”
The Paris Fire Brigade, Piet added, has “a structural problem” when it comes to sexual violence. She pointed to longstanding violent hazing rituals that have drawn attention in recent years. In May 2012, eight members of an elite unit were charged with ‘sexual aggression in a group,’ leading to the unit’s dissolution. Julie’s allegations are among other rape and sexual assault suits the brigade has faced in recent years.
In his testimony, one of the 17 responders who insisted that Julie consented, said: “It’s common among firemen, this type of situation. Every station has its stories of easy girls, it’s part of the job.” At the time the alleged rapes took place, he was 27, when Julie was 14.
While it is illegal in France for an adult to have sex with a child under the age of 15, there is no presumption of coercion—the notion of “statutory rape,” as understood in the United States, does not exist. (Although it is not codified in statute, French case law provides that children under six cannot consent.) Instead, rape is defined as “any act of sexual penetration” committed “by violence, coercion, threat or surprise.” Since the passage of a 2018 law, sex with a minor constitutes rape if there is proof of “abuse of vulnerability,” but the word “consent” does not appear in the legislative text. As Julie’s story has gained exposure in recent months, activists say her case reveals how French law has failed to protect minors.
France is a pariah among most European nations when it comes to minors and consent. Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Denmark, and Austria all have a legal age for consent, as does Britain; children under a certain age, usually ranging from 14 to 18, are presumed incapable of consenting to any form of sexual penetration with an adult. In France, an adult who has sex with a child under 15 is guilty of a "sexual infraction"—a misdimeanor offense punishable by up to five years in jail and a 75,000 euro fine. Rape, in contrast, leads to 20-year prison sentence.
France is a pariah among most European nations when it comes to minors and consent.
The absence of a minimum age for consent in France isn’t for activists’ lack of trying, but progress has been incremental at best. In 2005, France’s highest court ruled that sexual coercion is presumed in cases involving “children of a very young age,” but left the exact age to judges’ discretion; the decision, along with another in 2007, created a precedent that made the de facto consent age six years old, but does still not appear in the current law on sexual violence. A 2010 law states that a significant age difference can lead to “moral coercion,” but again left the details vague. And yet a 2018 survey indicated that a majority of the French public supports a minimum age for consent, especially when an adult is in a position of authority over a child. Sixty-eight percent said that they were unaware that such a law did not exist.
In November 2017, shortly after Emmanuel Macron took office, he expressed his support for setting the minimum age for consent at 15. Two months prior, a 28-year-old man was charged with "sexual infraction" after having sex with an 11-year-old girl; his attorneys argued that the girl had consented, unleashing a heated national debate over what constitutes rape. Marlène Schiappa, then the secretary of state for gender equality, pledged to pass a new law that would automatically deem sex with a minor rape. But French courts rejected the legislation on the grounds that it would violate the notion of presumption of innocence. Instead, the law expanded the definition of rape when it comes to minors, indicating that if sex results from “abuse of vulnerability,” it is considered rape. The 2018 law also extended the statute of limitations on rape allegations from 20 to 30 years after a victim turns 18. Last month, the French Senate rejected a proposed amendment to set the minimum age for consent at 15; lawmakers will consider a similar bill later this month.
“In most of the world, there’s a consensus that, with children, consent isn’t possible, and that a child is not a sexual partner,” said Salmona. “It’s something everyone should agree on, but in France, it’s not. It’s truly radical, the insanity of our system.”
The law, she said, inherently disadvantages the accuser—adult or minor. “The aggressor can always say, ‘I thought she’d consented,’ even if there are multiple men raping her, even if she’s a kid. The woman is always assumed to have consented.”
Feminist activists have been disappointed with Macron, who, upon taking office, pledged to make gender equality “the great cause” of his term. Last summer, he appointed Gérard Darmanin, who had been accused of rape, to interior minister, despite sustained outcry. Schiappa, for her part, did not object.
France’s contemporary debates over the age of consent are hardly new; the question of sex with minors—and the sexualization of children—has been a feature of the national conversation for decades. Although high-profile cases, including recent allegations against prominent intellectual Olivier Duhamel and the artist Claude Lévêque, tend to draw media attention and, at times, lead to legal charges, the French elite has long downplayed the gravity of sex with minors. Tight-knit intellectual circles and prestigious institutions have even celebrated the supposed sexuality of children, notably in the case of the prominent writer Gabriel Matzneff, whose books detailing sexual encounters with children and teenagers received literary accolades for decades.
“There’s a very French rape culture that confuses flirtation and gallantry with violence,” said Ben-Omar. “It all exists in a gray zone that, when taken far enough, argues that even minors can consent to sex.”
The question of sex with minors—and the sexualization of children—has been a feature of the national conversation for decades.
The social movements of the 1960s, and in particular the protests of May 1968, propped up sweeping interpretations of sexual freedom that activists blame for France’s weak laws on sexual violence, especially against minors. The early 1970s saw the rise of a so-called pro-pedophilia lobby, marked by regular petitions in defense of childrens’ sexuality. In 1979, the left-leaning newspaper Libération published a petition in defense of a man on trial for having sex with girls as young as six, arguing that “The love of children is also the love of their bodies.” The signatories—Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre among them—were not fringe figures but stalwarts of the French left. Some, such as the intellectual Pascal Bruckner and former health minister Bernard Kouchner, remain highly visible in public life today.
“There was an insistence that children had a sexuality,” said Piet. “And that’s the thinking that has informed our laws on rape.”
Although the #MeToo movement has helped draw attention to sexual violence and bolstered activists’ calls for greater legal accountability, it has been slow to take hold in France. Accusers have faced defamation charges and been forced to pay hefty fines; powerful men in media and film have maintained influential jobs despite allegations of assault or harassment.
“There’s always an idea that it’s the woman, or the young girl, who’s fabricating her aggressor,” said Salmona.
That was the reasoning that ultimately beset the 2018 law. Initially, the government announced that the minimum age for consent would be set at 15, but what feminist activists at first celebrated as a victory fell apart months later. “There was a sacralisation of the presumption of innocence,” Salmona said, even though on other subjects—terrorism, for example—the French judicial system is far less tethered to that principle. “They say the risk is that you’ll put an innocent man in jail. But the risk is also, when you let a rapist free, they’ll rape again,” she said.
“If we’re giving men the presumption of innocence, then we’re also presuming that young girls are liars,” said Piet. “There’s already a power imbalance, and still they have to prove themselves.”
For Julie, the consequences of the drawn-out legal battle have been devastating. A girl who had always been an excellent student, Julie dropped out of school once the abuse began. After numerous suicide attempts over the past decade, she threw herself from the fourth floor of a building in 2014. In 2019, after a court reduced the rape charges to ‘sexual infraction,’ Julie attempted suicide again, ending up hospitalized in a coma after ingesting prescription pills. Speaking to Médiapart this week, Julie called the trial a “profound trauma.” She left the courtroom “persuaded that, everything that happened, I wanted it, and that it was all my fault.”
“It’s incredibly serious, for the court to tell a girl that, in fact, she was not raped, to tell her, in fact, you consented to everything that happened,” Leriche said. “A victim cannot heal with that message. Today she’s 25, and her life stopped when she was 13. That’s more than half her life that has been stolen.”
Julie and her mother are bracing for the March 17 decision. But even if their appeal isn’t granted, they’re confident that the past decade of mobilizing—and heightened visibility around her case in the wake of the #MeToo movement—will help chip away at France’s retrograde legal norms. “I have women and young girls who write to me,” Leriche said, “to say, ‘Thanks to you, we’re willing to speak out, we’re no longer ashamed.’”