France Is Having Its Reckoning With Incest, in 2021

An explosive new book has forced French society to finally confront its dark recent history with accepting, even indulging, those who sexually abuse children.
January 29, 2021, 6:48pm
France Is Having Its Reckoning With Incest, in 2021
"La Familia Grande". Photo: JOEL SAGET / AFP

PARIS – On a Saturday afternoon in January, Flore Tricotelle carefully typed out the words that would tell the world that she was sexually abused by her grandfather, and pressed tweet.

The day before, the 37-year-old had sat down at her desk to compose precisely what she wanted to say. She wanted to take her time. Choose exactly the right words. Not leave anything out in the 280-character limit. 

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This is what she ended up writing: 

“My maternal grandfather was a paedophile predator. I was one of his many victims. Even today it is a taboo for many of our family members. 30 years later, I still struggle on a daily basis to (re)build myself.”

Her tweet would be one of tens of thousands of testimonials to take over Twitter in France this month under the hashtag #metooinceste, and build on the momentum of an explosive tell-all book, La Familia Grande, that accused a well-known French intellectual and media personality of committing incest and sexual abuse.

“It was a huge relief to send the tweet,” Tricotelle told VICE World News. “I felt like I no longer had to hide, or feel ashamed of what I went through. Often it’s victims who feel ashamed, even though it should be the other way around. I felt like I won against my abuser.”

In the weeks since, the social media campaign, which was organised by a collective of feminists Nous Toutes (All of Us) and inspired by the book, has brought one of society’s most taboo subjects out into the open, spurring national debate in France; the Senate to revisit consent laws; and President Emmanual Macron to weigh in on the conversation with promises of increased support to victims of incest.

“We’re here. We’re listening. We believe you,” he said in a two-minute message.

But getting to this point has been a long time coming in France. The #MeToo movement has emboldened victims of sexual abuse to challenge the patriarchy and help bring down some of the country’s most illustrious personalities, some of whom have long enjoyed impunity and protection from within the bubble of the intellectual elite. 

In La Familia Grande, which was released earlier this month, Camille Kouchner accuses stepfather Olivier Duhamel, a prominent political scientist, of committing incest against her twin brother whom she identifies by the pseudonym “Victor” when he was 13. The book was written with the permission of her brother.

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The scandal rocked much of the nation. But not all. Because as Kouchner told Le Monde: “I don’t reveal anything in this book. Everyone knew.” 

Some of Duhamel’s staunchest allies who Kouchner says knew of the allegations for years brushed them off, either evoking the notion of “consent” or chalking it up to “a different era.”

In recent weeks, students at a prestigious university where Duhamel previously held a position on the board have been demanding the school’s director also step down.

Last year France was rocked by another book in much the same manner: telling the French public what some of them already knew.

In Le Consentement, Vanessa Springora wrote about her sexual relationship with the writer and paedophile Gabriel Matzneff when she was 14 and he was 50. 

A looming figure in the French literati over 30 years, Matzneff spoke openly about his fondness for young girls and wrote about trips to the Philippines where he had sex with boys as young as eight. One of his essays from the 1970s is called “Les Moins de Seize Ans,” or “The Under-16s.” 

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He wrote candidly about his paedophilia, dressing up his perversions in literary prose which went unchallenged by the cultural gentry in France. Instead, he was celebrated, handed literary awards, and endorsed by President François Mitterand.

Since the release of Le Consentement, however, the 84-year-old has been dropped by his publisher, stripped of a cultural stipend from the state, and the public prosecutor’s office has launched an investigation. A court decision is expected this September. 

“In France, we have been particularly indulgent and benevolent with perpetrators of sexual violence against children,” said Patrick Loiseleur, vice-president of the advocacy group In the Face of Incest. 

He fires off names like director Roman Polanski, British photographer David Hamilton who spent much of his life in France, and French singer Claude François, all of whom enjoyed a certain level of impunity despite their predatory practices against young adolescent girls.

“I’m not sure that there are more sex offenders in France than in other places, but maybe they’re more open to admitting their perversions because they could.”

But as Cathy Milard, director of SOS Inceste, a support group for survivors of sexual violence  points out, the fact that incest is being talked about openly – without being watered down by euphemisms – marks a huge step for victims and survivors.

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“There’s a big shift happening in France right now. It’s really remarkable,” she said. “Just the very fact that we’re saying the word ‘incest’ is huge. It’s the first time in a long time, maybe the first time ever, that I’m hearing this word said out loud in the public like this. And that’s the first step in allowing people to speak openly about what happens.”

While Macron refrained from using the word “incest” in his speech, his language was strong, acknowledging “stolen childhoods” and “shattered lives in the sanctuary of a child’s bedroom.” 

For survivors, it can take years, sometimes decades, to confront their trauma and talk about their experience. 

Tricotelle, the 37-year-old who was abused by her grandfather, thinks the abuse started when she was five, and lasted until her grandfather’s death when she was 13. He would touch her genitals, and ask her to touch his. Sometimes it happened between the two of them, other times it happened in the presence of her cousins who were also among his many victims.

But she suffers from post-traumatic amnesia, and doesn’t know for sure if the molestation stopped there.

“There’s a whole part of my memory that I can’t access,” she said.

Carine, 42, who requested anonymity, was abused by her father, who told her that it was normal for dads to explore how their daughters’ bodies were changing during puberty. In a candid conversation with VICE World News, Carine freely shared details of her abuse. As soon as she started showing signs of development at the age of 11, her father would touch her chest and genitals and erupt in a fit of rage if she tried to refuse. Every time he touched her, she would be overwhelmed with nausea and the urge to vomit. Afterwards, she would rush to the bathroom to scrub herself raw, in a futile attempt to clean off the feeling of being dirty. 

“I remember hoping that one day, someone would tell me he wasn’t my real father. That he was just someone who took me in. I was so scared of him. But he was.”

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Their stories, horrific as they are, may not be as uncommon as you might think.

According to a national online poll released last November by Face of Incest and Ipsos, about 10 percent of the French population – or 6.7 million people – says they have been a victim of incest. 

“That means that pretty much everyone has an incest survivor among their friends and relatives,” Loiseleur, of the advocacy group In the Face of Incest, said. “Most of the time, though, you have no idea.”

And as the La Familia Grande affair shows, victims come from all socio-economic backgrounds, said psychologist Marie Bréhu at SOS Inceste.

“The biggest myth around incest is that it only happens within poor families, in the countryside and rural areas, and among the lower, disadvantaged classes,” she said. “But that’s false. Incest is not found in one particular social class.”

Bréhu also points out that the definition of incest isn’t limited to rape and penetration but includes inciting a child to sexual touching and creating a climate of incest without physical contact, be it the exposure of pornography or nudity with sexual intent.

Meanwhile, amid the explosive allegations against Duhamel and the momentum of the #metooinceste movement, last week French lawmakers passed a draft bill that would make sex between an adult and a minor under the age of 13 a criminal offence – whether consensual or not.

But child advocates and organisations widely criticised the bill for setting the age at 13. For years, they’ve been pushing for 15, the age of sexual majority in France.

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“Thirteen is much too young,” Bréhu said. “At that age, they don’t have the psychological maturity, or even the physical maturity, to be able to consent to sexual relations with an adult. It makes no sense.”

High profile French women also joined the chorus of criticism, posting photos of themselves at 13 on social media to show that they would have been too young to consent to sexual relations at that age.

Along with revising the age and removing the onus on children to prove consent, Loiseleur said advocates have been pushing the government for years to consider incest, and all the consequences that come with it, a matter of public health.

“We need an ambitious public health policy to deal with post-traumatic syndrome.”

Symptoms that are common among incest survivors later on include depression, mental health problems, addictions such as alcoholism and substance abuse, and chronic illnesses.

Tricotelle recounts a long list of health afflictions that have plagued her throughout her life: migraines, back pain, jaw pain from teeth grinding, eating disorders and depression. Compulsive shopping habits – an attempt at instant gratification – also turned into a destructive addiction and plunged her into debt, forcing her to declare bankruptcy. 

For Carine, the trauma has also been manifesting throughout her body in the form of debilitating pain in her back and her feet, hampering her mobility and movement.

“It’s an illness that we have to live with. We can’t be cured,” Carine said. “We can try to free ourselves from it, but the body is scarred.”

Earlier this week, “Victor” filed charges against Duhamel, who has yet to comment publicly about the allegations except to state that he has stepped down from his professional posts.

In the UK, survivors of sexual abuse can consult Mind.org.uk for a list of organisations and services for support.

The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network is the largest anti-sexual violence network in the US with more than 1,000 local sexual assault service providers across the country.