Campaigners call for the introduction of an age of consent as 20 firefighters face charges
Protests will take place across France on Sunday in support of a woman allegedly raped by 20 firefighters when she was between 13 and 15 years old. Her case is being examined in the country’s highest court this week and campaigners hope it will lead to an age of sexual consent being enshrined in law as it is in the rest of the European Union.
Julie* says she was raped by Parisian firefighters over a period of two years, having been groomed by Pierre, a firefighter who had assisted her during a severe anxiety seizure when she was 13 in early 2008. Three of the accused have admitted they had sex with her but say it was consensual. In a journal written shortly afterwards Julie says she was “terrified and paralysed with fear” at the time.
Based at the Bourg-la-Reine fire station in Paris, Pierre got Julie’s phone number from her medical file, in which her age was also recorded. Julie says he bombarded her with “affectionate messages”. Later, he asked Julie to undress via webcam and, when the child complied, passed her number to another firefighter who demanded the same.
Julie’s case will reach its conclusion on Wednesday at the court of cassation, the supreme court of appeal. Lawyers will argue that all 20 firefighters, who were from various stations, should be charged with rape. Currently only three men are charged with “sexual violation”.
French legislation says that it is an offence for someone in a position of authority to have sex with a person under the age of 18. Under the law, in order to bring rape charges, the complainant must prove she was forced or violently coerced; otherwise the accused may only be charged with sexual violation. The maximum sentence for sexual violation is seven years, compared with 20 for rape.
According to statements to the investigators Julie’s mental and physical health began to deteriorate after the assaults, which resulted in more seizures, and firefighters attended her home 130 times over two years. Julie became scared of going out and was prescribed anti-anxiety medication.
Her mother, Corinne Leriche, told investigators she was at first pleased that Pierre would call at the house to inquire after Julie’s health. “I even made a cake for the firemen,” she said. “We were grateful that they had looked after Julie when she was ill.”
In January 2009, Pierre dropped in on the family home and Leriche took the dog for a walk. Leriche claimed that during this time he raped her daughter. “I thought he was the last person to do such a thing because he had helped her so many times and saw how vulnerable she was.”
In November 2009, Pierre, in full uniform, took 14-year-old Julie to his apartment, where she told investigators he raped her again. Two colleagues came over and Julie says she was gang-raped while the men watched pornography.
In 2018, following protests from feminists, a change in the law was proposed that would introduce an age of consent at 15. This would mean that sex with someone younger would be considered rape. But the law was not passed after a government report concluded it would result in “an assumption of guilt”.
Julie was taken off medication in July 2010 as part of a treatment review and, having a clearer mind, disclosed the abuse to her mother. On 31 August, Leriche filed an official complaint to the police.
Six months later, the three men accused of raping Julie at Pierre’s home were placed under investigation, but no action was taken against the remaining 17.
During questioning, two of the accused men admitted they had had “group sex” with Julie while on duty and wearing their uniforms. Another admitted a sexual act in a toilet cubicle of a Parisian hospital where Julie had been admitted, yet claimed to have not noticed that the child displayed any signs of vulnerability.
In March 2011, a judge was appointed to investigate the case regarding the three accused of gang rape. The investigation took eight years, at the end of which, in July 2019, the judge decided to drop the rape charges and replace them with “consensual penetrative sex with a minor under 15”.
In the early stages of the investigation, four other firefighters who were present at one of the alleged rapes were charged with “failure to protect”, but all charges were subsequently dropped.
On hearing the outcome of the investigation in 2019, Julie attempted suicide, suffering serious injuries in the process. The family rejected the judge’s decision and took the case to the court of appeal in Versaillles. Last November, the appeal was thrown out because the court decided that Julie had consented to the sexual acts.
Marguerite Stern and her feminist group l’Amazone will be one of several women’s groups in France which will be staging public demonstrations in solidarity with Julie.
“For 10 years they were fighting alone, now thousands of feminists from all over France are joining them,” said Stern. “We are demanding that the firefighters be tried for rape and not ‘sexual violation’. This culture of misogyny in our courts must end.”
The public prosecutor in Julie’s case is hoping that, if successful, it will lay down new case law to remove the necessity to prove use of force or additional violence to secure a rape conviction of a minor under the age of 15.
Marjolaine Vignola, Julie’s legal advocate, says: “Every stereotype about rape is in this case: the judges and the psychiatrist say Julie is a liar, that she consented to sex with all those men, and that she is lying about being raped because she is ashamed.”
Calls for a minimum age of consent in France have been increasing. Last month the senate backed a bill to make the age of consent 13 – a threshold age considered insufficient by child protection associations.
* Not her real name (changed to protect her identity)