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Historic French police rape verdict comes as sexual violence complaints rise

AFP | Participants in a rally marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women walk with a banner reading ‘Stop sexist and sexual violence’ in Paris on November 24, 2018.

On the day elite policemen in Paris were convicted of raping a Canadian tourist – a verdict activists hail as a watershed – an official French report noted a jump in sexual violence complaints for 2018 with a nod to the Weinstein scandal and #MeToo.

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The coincidence of the two pieces of good news for women’s rights proponents and victims’ rights advocates in France is, to be clear, fortuitous. The Interior Ministry’s crime statistics are released annually. The guilty verdict in the Emily Spanton case was five years’ in the making, stretching back to the night in April 2014 when the then 34-year-old was gang-raped inside Paris’s prestigious judicial police headquarters by officers she met at a nearby pub.

But to hear one victims’ rights advocate tell it, they are instructive -- two sides of the same coin in a country where attitudes towards sexual violence victims and the victims’ own attitudes towards seeking justice are both changing with the times.

Lower ‘threshhold of tolerance’ for sexual violence

The Interior Ministry’s criminal statistics report, released Thursday, indicated the number of sexual violence complaints made to authorities “rose sharply” in 2018, up 19 percent, accentuating a trend. Rape complaints leapt by 17 percent and sexual assault complaints by 20 percent last year, the report said. It argued that victims’ attitudes towards filing a complaint evolved “in the climate of the Weinstein Affair and the different social media movements encouraging victims to speak out”. Only one in 10 people identifying as a victim of sexual violence outside the home took the step of filing a complaint in 2016, it said, but that proportion tripled for incidents that took place in 2017.

“The higher number of victims of sexual violence registered in 2017 and later in 2018 likely follows at once from an increased disclosure of occurrences and of a lowering of the threshold of tolerance of this type of violence in a context where [law enforcement] has sought to improve how they receive victims and to develop alternative means for them to provide statements,” the ministry said.

Women’s rights activists hailed the report’s findings. France’s #MeToo-inspired feminist collective #NousToutes tweeted, “+17% rape complaints in 2018. It’s a sign that society is changing. Public policy must follow.”

‘End of an era’

Economist Sandrine Rousseau, who heads Parler, an association that supports and accompanies sexually assaulted women through the legal process, believes #MeToo did play a role in the rising figures. But she says the metamorphosis happening is deeper and goes back further in time. While cautioning that eight of 10 women today still never do file a complaint, Rousseau says “I think we don’t realise just how much women no longer want to be subjected to this. I think that, truly, it’s the end of an era,” the former Europe Écologie-les Verts party executive told FRANCE 24.

Rousseau similarly sees a heartening leap forward in the Spanton verdict, which she calls historic, at once in its conviction of elite figures and in the failure of the defence’s antiquated strategy. The two police officers – members of an elite unit who were based in the prestigious judicial headquarters known by its famous address, 36, Quai des Orfèvres, synonymous in France with popular crime fiction – were sentenced to seven years in prison for raping Spanton, despite efforts to call her credibility as victim into question. (The two police officers, jailed after the verdict was read on Thursday, denied wrongdoing and filed appeals to overturn their convictions on Friday.)

“For me, it’s an important verdict because it was a trial that functioned a little bit old-school, that is the rapists’ defence was to say ‘she drank, she had several lovers’ and picking apart her life,” says Rousseau. Spanton saw her past drug use and sexual history put on public display, even enduring the testimony of an ex-husband she reportedly hadn’t seen in 10 years, beamed into the courtroom by videoconference. But the assistant public prosecutor wasn’t having it, Rousseau suggests, instead choosing to focus on the policemen’s lack of concern over whether the victim was giving consent and their modus operandi on the night of the crime. That emphasis, Rousseau says, counts as progress in France.

‘Tipping point’

“Trials were inversed, where those called into question were the women who had spoken up. And that’s really typical of what is called rape culture,” says Rousseau. “And I think that is at a tipping point. This is the first sign that it is tipping in the courts.”

Rousseau, for her part, got involved with sexual violence victim advocacy after she and other women accused a fellow ecology party executive, who was deputy speaker of the French lower house of parliament, of sexual misconduct, sparking a high-profile scandal.

“Another thing [that makes the Spanton trial historic] is that, in France, no one well-known or in a bit of a situation of power has ever been convicted of sexual violence. It doesn’t exist,” Rousseau says, calling police officers from such an elite squad “not just anybody”. “It’s not that it’s very rare, it’s the first time,” she says. “We were living in the Middle Ages in France in terms of justice for sexual violence! We were back in the witch trials. And with this, I think we are entering another era.”

The victims’ rights advocate suggests that the odds are so stacked against a woman who files a rape complaint in France – with a woman effectively presumed to be consenting and needing to prove otherwise, submitting to such taxing rituals as a face-to-face “confrontation” with their alleged attackers – that the fact Spanton was a foreigner may have been a factor in this case reaching the conclusion it did.

A foreigner leading the way?

“It might be because she is Canadian that she succeeded in making it to the end of this trial,” Rousseau wonders of Spanton. “I think she might not have imagined what she was getting herself into,” the advocate says, in seeking to bring Spanton's attackers to justice. The fact that Spanton, as the daughter of a Toronto police officer, was less daunted by the world of law enforcement than another victim might have been may also have played a role, she agrees.

So what are victims of sexual violence, perhaps hesitating over whether to file a complaint or stay mum, apt to draw from the Spanton case? The painful picking apart of the Canadian tourist’s life at trial or the historic verdict that saw her vindicated?

“The victims are so afraid that I don’t know what they retain,” Rousseau concedes. “But in any case, we’ll cross our fingers that that is what they retain.”

But she applauds Spanton for seeing a “very difficult, very traumatising” process through, even with the appeals process now pending. “I thank her, speaking as a victim, too, because I tell myself that it is because there are people who hold on right to the end that we are going to make it someday.”

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