Nolwen Lambert from Nancy is in her second year at Sciences Po in Reims. She reflects on speaking out after a sexual scandal severely struck the complacent, chin up, so-what attitude long accepted as part of the culture, prevailing forever in France.
How does France treat sexual assault accusations?
– on a personal level (in your own experience, how people one-on-one go about the conversation when there is a sexual assault accusation (sexual assault as a general umbrella ranging from rape, to molestation, to incest, to inappropriate behavior)?
I have never personally had to seek justice for sexual assaults or harassment. I could have and maybe I should have.
Over the past five years, I have had many traumatizing experiences as a French woman. Some men grabbed me, masturbated in front on me, followed me, sexually harassed me. One, at some point, even threatened to rape me with his friends.
I’m twenty. And in most of the events quoted above, I was a minor. I have heard things from friends about the violence to which they were exposed. Some of my friends got harassed, grabbed without consent or in the worst cases, raped.
I talk a lot about these situations, and I am not scared to recognize my status of victim of sexual violence. But most women still suffer under the weight of victim shaming and the omerta surrounding sexual violence in France.
Most women I have spoken with concerning this issue were believing me. They acknowledged my experience, comparing it to what they had lived. Men, however, were quite doubtful. They often were reluctant to believe me.
Of course, men, from the youngest generations especially, tend to listen more and more. They progressively recognize the sexual violence surrounding women in the French society.
women must convince men
We are making progress, but it remains our job as women to convince them. This I find very unfair.
Older men are worse. They consider our experiences as part of the normality behind womanhood. It is harder to convince them, or even to feel they care. They find excuses, such as the length of a skirt, how much a girl drank during a party, the time during which she was out.
But when you get grabbed in jeans, in the middle of the day, completely sober during charity work, it does not count. They don’t listen.
sexual violence in French society
Our society is divided by gender norms and rules, by heteronormativity and sexual violence. These four elements contribute to the stagnation of the public debate and to the endless repetition of sexual violence in the French society, as modern and liberalized as it seems.
– on an institutional level (how’re accusations handled on government level, university level, etc.)?
Most I’ve heard regarding how the institutional level deals with sexual assaults and harassment in France is frightening. Certainly, it is the reason most victims do not seek the help of justice or the police.
WAITING FOR MACRON
President Macron said he would make gender equality the great cause of his mandate. Three years later, we’re still stagnating.
Don’t get me wrong. Measures have been taken to protect kids from rape, the number of women killed by their husband has drastically decreased, but nothing has been done to help victims of sexual assault reach out.
Complaints are not taken by the police for lack of evidence (although it is completely illegal), cases are abandoned, schools do not take measures to protect their students, or switch rapists from campus to campus to protect their public image.
a tainted culture
Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut is let off saying “Men, let’s rape women, I rape my wife everyday” on national TV. Our entire culture is tainted by sexual violence, in any single sphere of our society, and yet no one listens to the victims.
This situation has made women distrust more and more institutions, and it is quite legitimate. In my freshman year of college, a guy threatened, if I ever came to the WEI (Integration Weekend for in-coming students), he’d rape me with his friends. However, I did not reach out the administration. I was too scared. Scared to be blamed, scared to see my reputation being ruined at the beginning of my undergraduate.
trust, not blame
I am the perfect example of the women who dares to speak out, but do not trust institutions enough to accuse and seek justice. And I am certainly not the one to blame for it.
Have movements such as #metoo and #BalanceTonPorc in France triggered the same shock and wave of consequential action as in the States?
#Metoo and #Balancetonporc have actually created great waves of shock in the French public sphere. I definitely feel women acknowledge more their status of victim without feeling ashamed.
Yet there is still and overall environment of distrust towards our experiences, whether it is from men’s side, older women, or public powers and institutions.
Two years after #Metoo, France was celebrating Polanski, a child rapist and pedo-criminal during its greatest cinematic event. We did not learn from these international hashtags.
These movements in itself were great progresses and were empowering women, but they have produced terrible results in the French society.
denouncing, in fashion
Men now think about us denouncing our sexual assaults as part of a new fashion that could be a possible threat to their position in the French society or to their carrier.
The head of Sciences Po campus in Nancy said it himself: “Guys, pay attention to what you do to girls, or it could ruin your career.” I feel like we haven’t made great progress as the debate continues to evolve around men.
extinguished… too soon
We talk about how possible accusations could ruin a man’s life more than how the sexual assault experience can actually ruin a life, a sexuality or someone’s mental health. #Metoo and #Balancetonporc were the starters of a political and gender revolution, whose flame was extinguished too soon.
Given this, do you think the conversation surrounding sexual assault is unique to France (culture + society) or are there not specific distinctions to be drawn in comparison to other “Western” countries?
I haven’t lived in many countries, but by comparison to my few experiences, I feel France is extremely violent in terms of sexual assaults compared to other western countries.
I have lived in Spain for the past two weeks and haven’t been catcalled or grabbed once in the street.
where obscenities prevail…
In France, I usually did not spend more than three days without being told obscene things by men. From personal experience, same goes in the US, Germany and Great Britain.
I also feel men are less reluctant to believe women in these countries than in ours. Of course, my experience cannot be held as a generality.
TRUTH IS ELSEWHERE
But I feel victims are more believed in other Western countries than ours, and that men are more often held accountable for their violence.
French people do not listen to their victims. But, hey, it’s part of the culture apparently. We’re the country of seduction. Such things are normal, and maybe a woman is accusing a man only to destroy his career, who knows?
allegations vs. actual
Maybe the rape allegations against this famous singer are just lies to ruin his reputation, who knows? Our country constantly puts into doubt any kind of traumatizing sexual experience, which I feel is not the case abroad.
However, I feel there may be less of a taboo about sexual violence in France than in some other Western countries, thanks to women and associations’ constant mobilization.
Do you believe consequences in the French legal system severe enough for the varieties of sexual assault accusations that’ve recently come up (incest, rape)?
I think that the French legal system is severe enough with rape cases and incest cases, but only in the legislation. Most of the highest prison sentences and other consequences are not properly applied to the perpetrators.
I am entirely for rehabilitative justice. But the way sentences are applied is truly derisory. In France, rape, without any aggravating circumstances is punished by a fifteen-year sentence. However, such severe sentences are rarely applied in our judicial system.
In the case of incest, the sentence goes up to twenty years in prison. Overall, these two sentences seem reasonable to rehabilitate perpetrators of rape and incest. Nonetheless, the way justice rules is veritably different. Such stiff sentences are rarely given.
Our system is rotten the way it functions. It is based on constant inquisition of victims and operates on victim shaming.
“How were you dressed? Did you have a drink? Did you close the door?” are questions heard far too much. As if it changed anything to the act of rape itself.
Do these increasing testimonies over the past couple years/ months reflect a reality of victims’ voices getting louder? could we say there is an evident change in how France goes about the conversation?
Voices are getting louder in France, and conversations about rape and other assaults are more and more open. Our youngest generations seem to listen and consider more victims, and it is about time.
DEBATE MORE OPEN
Before the #Metoo event, rape and other sexual violence were rarely present in the public debate. And nowadays, it is a very discussed topic. Every allegation is liable to create a great scandal (the Duhamel affair being the ultimate proof). But it also incentivizes the between-self and constant opposition between genders.
It is making the public debate more of a war zone than of a place where you can be listened to, and where you can participate to the evolution for the greater good. The louder our voices get the more men are feeling threatened and distrust our allegations.
We have to rebuild the public space, where actual debates can take place, and where people work together for making evolve the standards regarding sexual harassment and assaults.
How do you envision a change if there need be in how the country navigates the conversation? (both in personal level as well as legally speaking).
Considering our legal system: I think it is about time to hire police officers trained for the question of rape and sexual violence, but also to develop specific formations on rape and incest. It is time to make victims feels trusted and listened to.
I also think the new law regarding the age of consent should be modified and raised up to fifteen years old to protect young victims of rape. It is also time to consistently apply sentences. We cannot give a rapist 6 years, for which he will only truly do 5, when the penal code says it should be up to fifteen.
victims speak up
On a more personal level: shame must change sides. There is no shame in being a victim, and I encourage all victims to acknowledge their status and speak out/ reach out if they feel strong enough to.
French women definitely have to accept the fact that they are not responsible for what happened to them. We have to stop finding excuses for what happened to us. What happened is not fair, but still, it is not our fault.
Let’s stop blaming ourselves for what we haven’t done and let’s fight together against assaults and harassment.
Another change in France that should definitely be taken-into-account is how we educate our boys, and the place consent takes in sexual education.
change the norms…
We definitely have to change norms and how hegemonic masculinity functions dominantly in our country in order to open the debate and reduce the number of victims.
Consent should be taught as an entire aspect of sexual education, and parents should raise children with respect to consent.
Finally, we have to change the way we listen to victims in France. When a woman says she has been harassed or assaulted by a man, she is usually not lying about it. Out of a hundred rape allegations, only three are not true.
This leaves 97% of the accusations being verified. Let’s believe the victims and take their experience into consideration on a one-to-one basis. Our justice is the only one accountable for verifying if we were truly assaulted or not.
About the Article
Reflections of a French college sophomore on her observations and personal experiences attending university in France.