After Duhamel incest scandal, French lawmakers bid to break omerta

Victims of sexual abuse stage a protest in the Corsican city of Ajaccio, on July 5, 2020
Victims of sexual abuse stage a protest in the Corsican city of Ajaccio, on July 5, 2020 © AFP - Pascal Pochard-Casabianca
3 min

French senators on Thursday began studying a new bill aimed at tightening the country’s laws on sexual abuse against children, including harsher penalties for the non-reporting of such crimes. The changes come on the heels of an incest scandal that brought down one of France’s most prominent intellectuals after he was accused of sexually abusing his stepson.

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If the new bill is adopted, any sexual relations with a child under the age of 13 – whether considered consensual or not – will be criminalised, and punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a €150,000 fine. The bill also includes a proposal to extend the statute of limitations for child rape, from 30 years after the victim turns 18, to 40 years.

But in the run-up to the Senate vote, the bill was bolstered with a significant addition: increasing the statute of limitations for the non-reporting of such crimes. Anyone bearing witness to, or having knowledge of sexual abuse of a minor, could be held accountable for their silence for 10 years after the victim turns 18. In the case of more serious sexual offences, they could be held accountable for 20 years after the victim turns 18. The statute of limitations is currently set at six years.

The last-minute addition marks an important break with France’s long-standing, and often criticised, tradition of omerta (code of silence) on the subject of incest, a topic propelled into the spotlight earlier this month after Camille Kouchner, the stepdaughter of prominent political scientist Olivier Duhamel, released a book in which she accused Duhamel of having abused her twin brother for several years, starting when he was 14.

In France, sexual abuse committed by non-blood-related family members is considered incestuous. Almost one in 10 French people have been victims of incest, according to a recent survey by French polling institute Ipsos.

In her book, “La Familia Grande”, Kouchner reveals that dozens of her mother’s leftist intellectual friends – some of them household names in France – knew about the abuse but chose to keep quiet.  

"Of course, I thought my book might seem obscene because of my family's fame. Then I thought to myself, this is exactly what needs to be done," she was quoted as saying in an interview with French weekly L'Obs magazine.

Breaking the silence

Koucher's book sparked a wave of reactions on Twitter under the hashtag #MeTooInceste, which garnered tens of thousands of tweets since first appearing on the social media platform late last week. While the Twitter storm encouraged many victims to come forward and break their silence, it also prompted stark condemnations of witnesses protecting perpetrators through their silence.

France’s First Lady Brigitte Macron told French broadcaster TF1 on Sunday that: “It is absolutely necessary that these actions are known, and that these actions are not silenced.”

Following the accusations against him, Duhamel announced his resignation from all his posts, including as head of the National Foundation of Political Sciences (FNSP) a body that oversees the hugely prestigious Sciences Po university.

"I am stepping down from my posts after being the target of personal attacks as I want to preserve the institutions in which I work," Duhamel wrote in a tweet.

Camille Kouchner, 45, and her twin brother are the children of Bernard Kouchner, France's former foreign minister and co-founder of medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and the academic Evelyne Pisier, who died in 2017.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

 

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