Top French court rejects rape charges against firefighters in child abuse case
France’s highest court has rejected a bid by a woman to have three firefighters charged with rape instead of sexual assault, after crimes committed against her when she was in her early teens in a case that campaigners say highlights the need for tougher laws against sexual relations with minors.
Without ruling on merits of cases, France’s Court of Cassation upheld the ruling of a lower court that said the woman, known under the pseudonym Julie in public, had shown “the necessary discernment” to consent to sex with three firefighters when she was a teenager.
Julie alleges she was raped by more than 20 firefighters in the Paris area between 2008 and 2010, when she was aged 13 to 15 and receiving treatment for severe anxiety attacks.
During that period, she was hospitalised more than 130 times by an ambulance service staffed by firefighters.
Three firefighters are charged with sexual abuse of a minor, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
No age of consent
Julie and her family have been pushing for them to be tried for rape, which carries a 20-year term. But under France’s current laws, charges of rape must require proving the use of “force, threat, violence or surprise”, even if the victim is a child.
The woman’s decade-long quest for justice has gained strong support from feminist groups, who say the case highlights the vulnerability of children in a country with a traditionally permissive culture towards sex with minors.
The ruling comes a day after MPs approved a bill that would set the age of 15 as a minimum age of consent, which would bring France in line with most Western countries.
If it becomes law, France’s courts would automatically treat sexual relations between an adult and a child under 15 as rape.
Confusion over consent
In 2010, Julie accused a firefighter, identified as Pierre C., of grooming her for sex at age 13. She said he introduced her to colleagues who attacked her in apartments, hospital toilets, car parks and other venues.
Julie’s family says she was incapable of consenting to sex as she was heavily medicated and vulnerable at the time of the incidents.
The accused were initially charged with gang rape, but an appeals court downgraded the charges, having decided Julie’s “seductive, provocative, enterprising” behaviour showed she was not acting under duress.
Bertrand Colin, one of Julie’s lawyers, argued the judges had “confused the absence of refusal with consent”.
Tougher laws on sex with minors
The issue of sexual abuse of minors gained prominence in France this year after Camille Kouchner, daughter of Doctors Without Borders founder and politician Bernard Kouchner, accused her stepfather, political scientist Olivier Duhamel, of abusing her twin brother when they were teenagers.
The book sparked an outpouring of testimonies about incest, which refers in French law to sexual abuse by relatives even without blood relations.
Allegations also accelerated a push by President Emmanuel Macron’s government for new laws to protect children from sexual abuse.
The bill adopted by MPs would also make it illegal for an adult to have sex with a relative aged under 18.
Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said the proposed law aimed to send a clear message that “children are off limits.”
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