Thousands of French incest victims share experiences on social media

As France continued to reel from allegations that a prominent member of the Parisian intellectual elite had sexually abused his then 14-year-old stepson, a wave of testimonies have flooded social media under the hashtag #metooinceste.

Thousands of people, including public figures and elected officials, have taken to Twitter in an outpouring reminiscent of the #metoo movement, at what some see as a pivotal moment for French attitudes towards incest. 

“I was 6. It was my older brother. My parents did not believe me,” read one tweet. “He was my uncle. He used to bring chocolates for me,” read another.

“There is a lot of momentum right now,” said Madeline Da Silva, an organiser behind the launch of #metooinceste and a member of the feminist group #NousToutes.

This trend followed the publication, earlier this month, of a book by lawyer Camille Kouchner in which she alleged that her twin brother had been sexually abused as a child by their stepfather Olivier Duhamel, a political analyst and broadcaster.

As a result, the country’s Senate approved on Thursday a law designed to give minors aged 13 and under added protection from sexual assault. The legislation also contained a provision aimed at strengthening the sanctions available to courts in cases of incest.

The #NousToutes group initially scheduled the launch of about 150 tweets from incest survivors on January 16, in the wake of the Duhamel scandal. The hashtag then quickly gained momentum with tens of thousands of tweets from other victims. “The problem with incest is silence. Now victims are no longer silent,” said Ms Da Silva. 

One in 10 people in France has experienced incest, according to a country-wide survey from November by the pollster Ipsos. It showed that more than three-quarters of victims were women and 98 per cent of abusers were men.

“These figures point to a systemic problem,” said Patrick Loiseleur, vice-president of Face à l’inceste, an organisation that helps victims of incest. “Besides an archaic system of male domination, there is also a specific cultural issue in France, where not that long ago intellectuals like Foucault and Sartre defended sex with minors as an expression of free love and children’s ‘right to pleasure’.”

Unlike in most western countries, incest is currently not specifically prohibited under French law, although sex with a minor is. Victims say the barriers to holding their aggressors to account are huge though, with judges asked to determine on a case-by-case basis whether a sexual act with a minor is consensual or not.

Aggressors in France are also protected by a statute of limitations, recently increased to 30 years. Annick Billon, the centrist politician who brought the proposed new legislation before the Senate, has called for the statute of limitations to be extended to 40 years.

The #metooinceste campaign comes in the wake of sexual abuse scandals involving prominent public figures in recent years. In 2019, author Vanessa Springora described in a memoir a sexual relationship with writer Gabriel Matzneff that began when she was 14 in the 1980s. And in February last year, champion figure skater Sarah Abitbol accused a former coach of abusing her when she was 15. Actress Adele Haenel also opened up in late 2019 about how she was abused by a film director between the ages of 12 and 15.

Olivier Duhamel, a prominent member of France’s intellectual elite, was alleged to have sexually abused his stepson in the 1980s © AFP via Getty Images
Elisabeth Guigou resigned as head of a commission of inquiry into incest and child sexual abuse because of her acquaintance with Mr Duhamel © AFP via Getty Images

Most victims of incest in France who file suits are coaxed into changing their complaints from rape to sexual aggression, a lesser offence, say legal specialists, with only one in 10 rape complaints leading to a trial and fewer of those to a sentence, according to Insee, the French statistics agency.

“There is a level of impunity when it comes to incest in France that is unbearable,” said Muriel Salmona, a psychiatrist and founder of the victims group Association Mémoire Traumatique et Victimologie.

A government plan was launched in 2019 to tackle violence against children, including increased budget for a helpline, prevention among families and in schools as well as dedicated teams to identify and deal with child abuse.

“You cannot deny that more has been done by this government to protect children than any other government,” Alexandra Louis, an MP for President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche party, told the Financial Times.

She pointed to the appointment last year of Adrien Taquet as member of the government in charge of children and families, increased training of police officers and an online platform to denounce crimes against children. Yet some argue that the measures introduced lacked teeth. 

“We have been and continue to be incredibly disappointed in the government’s response to what amounts to a national crisis in public health,” said Ms Salmona.

A commission to examine questions of incest and child sexual abuse established last month was buffeted by the Duhamel scandal, when its head, Elisabeth Guigou, resigned due to her close acquaintance with Mr Duhamel.

A number of prominent political figures have rallied in support of #metooinceste, including the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and Mr Macron’s wife Brigitte.

France is the first country to see an online campaign to draw public attention to incest. “I would not be surprised if other countries followed suit and had their own #metooinceste movement,” said Ms Da Silva.

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