CHILD ABUSE

French incest survivors start to break the tradition of silence

Paris street collage reading “Duhamel and others, you will never be in peace”, in reference to allegations of incest against prominent French political expert Olivier Duhamel .
Paris street collage reading “Duhamel and others, you will never be in peace”, in reference to allegations of incest against prominent French political expert Olivier Duhamel . AP - Francois Mori
5 min

Survivors of sexual abuse by family members believe French society may be starting to face up to incest – a taboo topic that affects an estimated one in 10 people – following a recent book, and thousands of public testimonies under the #MeTooInceste hashtag.

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First came the publication on 5 January of La Familia Grande, in which author Camille Kouchner accuses her stepfather, prominent French intellectual Olivier Duhamel, of raping her twin brother when they were teenagers.

Then, the weekend of 16-17 January, thousands more testimonies gained traction under the #MeTooInceste social media hashtag, modelled on the #MeToo phenomenon of speaking out about sexual abuse and harassment.

One testimony reads: “I was 5 years old. One evening, my mother’s brother destroyed my innocence and darkened the course of my life. In a second, I was 100 years old.” 

On Saturday, days after French MPs approved a proposal to toughen punishment for crimes of child sexual abuse, President Emmanuel Macron asked the government to come up with more proposals.

“This is very significant and quite unexpected,” says Patrick Loiseleur, vice-president of Face à l’inceste (Facing Incest), a survivors’ group whose origins stretch back to the year 2000.

“For many years, we had the impression of being alone, shouting in the desert. It’s like French society is coming out of denial.”

Breaking family cohesion

Survivors’ groups have long maintained that sexual abuse by family members is a widespread phenomenon whose real numbers are largely underestimated.

Based on the results of a poll commissioned by Face à l’incest in November 2020, Ipsos estimates one in 10 French people have been victims of incest as children or adolescents. Of those, 78 percent were women, and 22 percent men.

The results also suggest a growing willingness to speak out and to identify as a victim. While a 2009 poll showed 3 percent of French people considered themselves to be victims, that number rose to 6 percent in 2015.

In addition to the stigma that comes with child abuse, incest threatens to break family cohesion and to disrupt the sanctity of the private realm as a place of safety from public scrutiny.

“You have to accept losing your family in addition to being the victim of sexual violence,” explains Loiseleur, whose group says victims’ families only believe allegations of incest in 20 percent of cases.

“In many families, denial is the rule.”

Kouchner’s book illustrates how the dynamic works, Loiseleur adds. “What’s really interesting in this book, and specific to incest, is that law of silence, the omerta within families that keeps those crimes well hidden.”

Push to make incest a crime

Legal barriers also exist, whereby victims, whatever their age at the moment of the incidents, are obliged to enter the legally nebulous terrain of proving non-consent.

“Under the definition of rape in French law, the victim is considered 'consentful' by default, until the contrary is proven, even for children, even for incest,” Loiseleur says.

“If you are a child, and the perpetrator is your uncle or father, you still have to prove that you were not consentful.”

One of the group’s battles has been to have incest recognised as a crime. Since 2016, incest has been included in the penal code as an aggravating circumstance in crimes of rape or sexual violence, but is not a crime in itself.

“We are pushing for reform that makes incest recognised as a crime, apart from rape, because incest is more than rape,” Loiseleur says. “There is something broken in the family relationship, and that must be recognised in the law.”

Can France now take the lead?

Kouchner’s book and the #MeTooInceste hashtag represent the kind public awareness that survivors say is needed to overcome legal barriers.

Recent weeks also show signs of pressure to confront certain attitudes toward incest.

A television network severed ties with commentator and philosopher Alain Finkielkraut after he suggested there may have been consent in the Duhamel case because the victim was 14 years old.

Later, a cartoonist for newspaper Le Monde resigned after the paper’s editorial director apologised for publishing a drawing that critics accused of mocking incest victims.

Loiseleur considers there may be a cultural shift in France, which has had particularly tolerant attitudes towards child abuse.

“In the 70s and 80s, some people defended the idea that children had the right to sexuality and to freely discover their sexuality, regardless of their age,” he says.

“This is not shared by most of the population who, just like me, have children and want their children to be safe. But maybe in the French elite, there was a certain reluctance to creating an age of consent.”

Recent years have also seen legal action against author Gabriel Matzneff, who celebrated his sexual relations with children in books published by leading publishing house Gallimard, and public pressure on filmmaker Roman Polanski, who lives in France, to avoid persecution for sexual relations with a child in California.

“France was late on this question, but maybe now it will lead," Loiseleur says, adding the movement could spill beyond French borders.

"In Belgium, there was a proposal to make incest a separate crime. Maybe things will start moving in all of Europe and not only France now.”

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