France Is Finally Thinking About Making Incest a Crime But Politicians Are Accused of Watering the Law Down

JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images
JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

PARIS—Long after Serge Gainsbourg recorded “Lemon Incest” with his 12-year-old daughter, a provocative song that reached No. 2 on the country’s music charts in 1984, the age of glamorizing pedophilia and incest in France is finally coming to a sour end.

High-profile revelations of family sex abuse, soon followed by a nationwide outpouring of incest victims’ testimonies, in recent weeks have forced the hand of lawmakers in France, where there is currently no legal age of sexual consent, no specific crime against incest, and where a victim of rape is considered consenting by default.

Alexandra Louis, lawmaker for the ruling party La République en Marche, tabled a bill on Feb. 2 to criminalize sexual acts between an adult and a child under age 15 (or 18 in the case of incest)—currently an offense and not a crime, proposing a minimum 15-year prison sentence for any adult found guilty, and extending the statute of limitations to give victims more time to bring legal proceedings.

“For too long victims have been ignored,” Louis, whose bill will be examined in a public session on Thursday, told The Daily Beast. “Often they are victims of repeated abuses, and the children are completely trapped. I want the law to put an end to this. We need preventions and better protections.”

Yet campaigners remain wary of heralding progress before the law is ratified. Patrick Loiseleur, vice president of the advocacy group In the Face of Incest, says a culture of impunity has thwarted past attempts to introduce restrictions. A previous effort to set France’s first age of consent at 15 in the wake of the #MeToo movement failed in 2018.

“Any attempt to create an age of consent in France has been blocked,” he says. “We believe that men in positions of power have prevented this from being adopted in a discreet but efficient manner. When you try to change the law in France, you meet a very strong resistance.”

Loiseleur is also concerned that the law could be watered down, pointing to last-minute changes to Louis’ bill that would allow an age gap of five years for couples that involve minors—meaning a relationship between a 14-year-old and 18-year-old would be permitted—so as not to criminalize existing couples and a clause relating to whether a perpetrator was aware of the age of the victim that would see punishment reduced.

“These last minute changes are watering down the protections of children,” he says. “They were never mentioned in our discussions with the government before, they weren’t mentioned in the initial text and have been added in without a vote. We are writing to all of the lawmakers to have this removed.”

In response, Louis told The Daily Beast: “The amendment absolutely does not reduce the protection of minors… in any case, the text will necessarily have to be worked on.”

For many, the end to an historic culture of silence and victim-blaming comes far too late. Research shows that incest is astoundingly widespread. In France it is defined as sexual relations between two people who are so closely related that marriage between them would be legally prohibited, such as between siblings or stepparents and stepchildren.

One in 10 French people say they are victims of incest, according to a poll conducted by Ipsos in November, with 78 percent of the reported victims female and 22 percent male. Surveys held over the years show the number of those that have suffered sexual abuse within the family as children or adolescents has tripled from 3 percent of the population in 2009—equivalent to 2 million victims—to 10 percent in 2020—6.7 million victims, in part fuelled by greater recognition of the taboo. According to estimates by France’s Interior Ministry, only 10 percent of victims of sexual abuse lodge a complaint—and just 1 percent of perperators of incest are convicted.

Marie, a 45-year-old who lives in Nanterre, a Parisian suburb, is one of the victims. Born in French Guiana, she was sexually abused by her father when she was a child. “At the beginning of my childhood he was a good father, he loved me and he was affectionate,” she says. “But little by little, things changed. And when I reached 14, everything went to hell. He forced himself into my bed. It started once, then twice, and three times.”

For Marie, the trauma of the events has been compounded by legal limits that mean complaints can only be lodged within a certain time period. “That man threatened to kill me if I told anyone about it,” she explains. “I blamed myself for a long time, he made me feel like it was my fault. But when I decided I wanted to launch a complaint, I was told I couldn’t—it was too late.”

In addition to grave psychological trauma, experts say victims are more vulnerable to a wide range of health issues, including depression, risk of suicide, eating disorders, and addictive behavior. A survey carried out by France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies in 2015 found that women who suffer childhood sexual violence are more likely to be subjected to harassment or sexual violence in adulthood.

“In France, there has historically been propaganda against the victims,” says Muriel Salmona, a childhood-abuse survivor and president of the association Mémoire Traumatique et Victimologie. “They’ve been put to the sword. The child is in danger in an area where they should be protected.”

In January, French President Emmanuel Macron set in motion reforms in the wake of the scandal surrounding Olivier Duhamel, a prestigious political scientist at Sciences Po University, who was accused by his stepdaughter, Camille Kouchner, of having abused her twin brother, when he was 14. Following the news, thousands of survivors posted their traumatic stories under the #MeTooInceste hashtag.

Other figures in the French elite have followed in the aftermath amid further revelations of incest and attempts to protect the accused. On Tuesday, Frédéric Mion, director of Sciences Po, resigned after a two-week investigation found he was made aware of the accusations against Duhamel in 2018 but did “not disclose all the information at his disposal.”

“It’s a betrayal,” says Léon Thébault, one of the students at Sciences Po who demanded Mion’s departure in a series of protests. “He was aware of the accusations in 2018, yet he did nothing. In fact, he maintained a law of silence. He lied to us.”

For Thébault, a can of worms has been opened and Duhamel will not be the only departure. “We hope the page will turn with this, but we must stay vigilant,” he says. “There’s a strong probability that there will be other cases at our universities.”

The efforts to harden legislation on incest come as part of a wider reckoning for child sex abuse. France’s highest court began considering a case Wednesday involving a woman who said she was the victim of gang rape by 20 adult firefighters when she was between the ages of 13 and 15. A lower court had initially downgraded the charges to sexual assault, but her lawyers argue it should be reclassified as rape.

On Friday, Daniel Chapellier, director of the prestigious private school Saint-Jean-de-Passy in Paris, was indicted for “sexual assault on a minor,” after a complaint was lodged by the parents of a student.

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