Following a wave of recent scandals over incest and child sex abuse in France, President Emmanuel Macron has proposed a series of measures to address the issue. But while welcoming the new initiatives, child rights experts say they are not enough to address the scale of the problem and warn the lack of resources could pose major implementation challenges.
Earlier this year, when a leading French political scientist resigned from his university post following the publication of a book by his stepdaughter claiming he sexually abused his twin brother when they were 14, it triggered a firestorm in France.
The book “La Familia Grande” by Camille Kouchner triggered a #MeToo movement on French social media, with the hashtag, #MeTooIncest, drawing tens of thousands of disturbing victim accounts, underlining the need for better protection for France’s minors.
Kouchner’s allegations were the latest in a series of child sex abuses to rock France in recent months, emphasizing the need for policy initiatives to address the problem.
French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to address these concerns and took to Twitter over the weekend to explain, “We hear you. We believe you ”to the victims of incest and child sexual abuse.
Breaking lives in the sanctuary of a children’s room. Children travel during family vacations, or moments that will be innocuous and lead the way. Today, the slogan is free. Thanks to mod. pic.twitter.com/etHFUU4eRh
– Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) January 23, 2021
In a long Twitter thread, Macron said that France needed to adapt its laws to better protect children from sexual violence and that he had asked the Minister of Justice to lead a consultation aimed at quickly submitting bills.
Some of the proposals included the introduction of incest sessions during compulsory medical examinations in primary and secondary schools to give children a chance to talk about the issue. Better psychological help for incest drugs would also be made available, which would be replaced by social security, he said. “We will follow the attackers,” Macron promised.
But child rights experts are not convinced that the government’s proposals are strong enough or that they have the resources needed to act effectively after child sexual abuse.
Lack of resources means ‘total impunity’
Pascal Cussigh, a lawyer and head of the child protection group, Collectif pour l’enfance, which has been at the forefront of the fight to tackle the problem, warned that the French judiciary lacks legal tools to prosecute and convict child sexual abuse.
“If we really want to deal with pedophilia cases in the courts, we must acknowledge that we seriously lack the means to do so. The courts are not in a position to deal with the volume of such cases,” Cussigh warned. “The prosecuting authorities are overwhelmed, many investigations are carried out quickly and cases are closed without further action due to lack of sufficient human resources,” he explained.
In France, only 1 to 2% of rape cases against children or teenagers lead to court rulings, according to figures published in 2018 by Marlène Schiappa, then French Secretary of State for Gender Equality.
But even these gloomy figures represent only the tip of the iceberg, according to Arnaud Gallais, founder of the collective Prévenir et protéger (Prevent and Protect). “We know that today 4% of rape children file complaints every year, and of these 4%, only 0.3% end up in court. This means total impunity.”
‘The law of silence used by pedophiles’
Following Macron’s Twitter announcement, the government on Monday presented a series of proposals, including reforms such as extending the legal statute of limitations. France’s first ten years from the victim’s majority age were extended to 20 in 2004 and then to another 30 in 2018, but these reforms do not apply to acts that are already statutory.
“This is obviously a step forward,” Cussigh said. “The current system has shown its limits. The case revealed by Camille Kouchner, where the limitation period has probably passed, clearly illustrates the problem. She has talked about it in a book and in the media, then it should be handled by a judge. The victim should be right to speak and the attackers should have the right to defend themselves in court, he said.
In his book “La Familia Grande”, Kouchner – daughter of a former French foreign minister – told how her stepfather, Olivier Duhamel, abused his twin brother the night before he went to bed for a period of about two to three years. She said her brother, who told her about the abuse, had asked her to keep “this secret”.
Kouchner, now 45, did not go public until her brother, who was identified only as “Victor” in the book to protect his privacy, had read her manuscript twice.
As head of NGOs, Comprendre, défendre et protéger l’enfance (CDP-Enfance), Cussigh regularly receives legal aid from victims who come into contact with trained lawyers. “The system of limited restraints is extremely violent for the victims,” he noted. “Apart from the deadline, they are facing judges who can no longer speak for it. They are told that it is too late to speak, we can no longer hear you. This is in line with the law of secrecy that pedophiles use to put pressure on their victims. “
No age of consent or “consent to one’s own incest”
Another measure being considered by the government is the age of consent, an issue that has been at the heart of a child protection campaign in recent years.
It was re-examined last year when author Vanessa Springora published a memoir “Le Consentement” (consent) about her relationship with author Gabriel Matzneff, now 84, who was a well-known pedophile in French literary circles.
According to Adrien Taquet, the French Secretary of State for the Protection of Children, a systematic non-consent of minors should be enshrined in law, so that “it is no longer possible to hear that a child consents to a sexual relationship with an adult” as is the case today .
Calls for a minimum age for consent in France have increased in recent years. In 2018, France stopped failing to establish a legal age for sexual consent after a heated debate in the National Assembly.
While the lower house of parliament voted in favor of a bill to tighten laws on child rape, lawmakers voted against the age limit of a minor not being able to consent to a sexual relationship with an adult.
As a result, there is still no law setting a legal age for sexual consent in France.
“We are one of the only countries in Europe that has not adopted the principle of a minimum age for sexual consent,” Cussigh said in an interview with Jowharas early as 2018.
Two years later, with the issue back in the spotlight, Cussigh welcomed the latest press to set a time limit for consent in France, but warned: “Currently, this is just a letter of intent.”
In a separate development, the French Senate unanimously adopted a bill on January 21 aimed at declaring sex between an adult and a minor under the age of 13 as a child sex offense. However, this threshold age is still considered insufficient by child welfare associations. “It would mean that a minor at the age of 13 and one day could consent to sex with an adult. How about cases of incest for children over the age of 13, this would mean that they would have to consent to their own incest,” Cussigh said.
Screening programs on paper, but not in schools
In his Twitter promise, Macron noted that during the existing mandatory medical visits to French primary schools, “two screening and prevention meetings against sexual violence against children” would be canceled for all students.
This was also condemned as an “empty promise” by child rights groups. France already has a law from 2001 that provides for three sessions per academic year for education in sexual and emotional life, which includes prevention of sexual violence for students from primary to secondary school “But in reality, these sessions do not always take place, it is followed very inconsistently”, explained Céline Piques, spokeswoman for the women’s rights group, Osez le féminisme, who works in high school.
A school’s ability to comply with the law, Piques explained, was based on subsidies granted by local and regional authorities as well as on the goodwill of teachers, school nurses and volunteers from the state associations involved in the project. The French national education system, she explained, does not provide the resources for this implementation, which she noted was “a real missed opportunity”.
French school doctors also responded to Macron’s announcement, reminding the government that detection responsibilities could not simply rest on their shoulders due to the current lack of resources. In some regions, such as the northern Parisian suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, only a third of school doctor services were filled and follow-up times were no longer provided in some areas.
“Months and years before you get an appointment”
One of the most concrete measures that Macron proposed was to have psychological help for incest substances available and replaced by social security.
In practice, such care is already covered by social security, but only in medical-psychological centers that are often saturated or in hospitals. “It’s a little known and little applied system,” explained Patrick Loiseleur, of the group Face à l’inceste. “Many incest survivors are without money, sometimes spending months and years before meeting,” he explained.
Although the public system is overwhelming, private consultations are expensive. “There are many victims who want a follow-up agreement, but are unable to handle it due to financial constraints. This poses risks because we know that suicide attempts are more common among victims of child sexual abuse,” Cussigh said.
(This article a translation of the original in French)