A new report aimed at improving the French state’s response to childhood and incestual sexual abuse does not include plans to ban incest in all its forms in France.
In France, there is no law in particular against two adults (those aged 18 and over) engaging in a consensual incestuous relationship or having children.
However, it is illegal when anyone under the age of 18 is involved, under a law which came into force in April 2021.
This differs to the UK, for example, where all incestuous relationships are illegal.
In January this year, the French government announced that it intended to criminalise all incestuous relationships, whether those involved were children or adults. This would still allow cousins to marry and it was not confirmed whether step-families would be included.
The state Commission indépendante sur l’inceste et les violences sexuelles faites aux enfants (Ciivise) has now collected 16,414 testimonies from victims of sexual violence over a year, and outlined five areas of improvement for authorities.
The resulting final report does not contain a recommendation to ban all forms of incest, but instead outlines plans to remove parental authority from parents who are convicted of having committed incestuous sexual violence on their child.
Edouard Durand, who is a judge and the president of the Commission, said: “One cannot break the law with impunity and parental authority is designed to protect a child.
“One cannot rape one’s child and decide if that child can receive care or not. This is why, when there is a conviction, parental authority must be taken from incestuous parents.
“Parental authority and the right to visit and live with [the child] must be suspended completely from the beginning to the end of the investigation, even before judgement.
“Because the question which will always remain is: who do we want to protect?”
Currently, a judge must rule on whether a parent should lose their authority or not.
‘Incest is socially but not legally forbidden’
“We are not there yet but are in a process,” Laurent Boyer, the chairman of the child protection charity Les Papillons and a member of the Commission told The Telegraph.
“Incest is socially forbidden but not legally forbidden and it is important to make the two coincide,” he said.
“[A sexual relationship] between a parent and a child always involves a form of control even when the child has reached adulthood, which is why incest is a specific act that requires specific legislation.
Effectively identify abuse
In its report, the Commission calls for the development of a systematic procedure for identifying the victims of sexual violence.
It said that France must not leave responsibility to the “160,000 child victims of sexual violence each year”, and that questions over possible abuse should be posed automatically by the professionals surrounding each child.
If doctors, teachers, school nurses and social workers were to routinely ask children questions aimed at identifying possible abuse, it may help them to uncover the true root of these behaviours, the Commision believes. A booklet being prepared for education workers says questions might include ‘has anyone hurt you?” or “is anything causing you suffering?”.
“As a teenager, a teacher found it strange that I didn’t go through any teenage rebellion, but no one ever asked why,” one victim said in the Commission report.
To encourage victims to speak out, professionals must show that they can be trusted, and should receive training on issues around sexual violence towards children so that they know how best to act, the report says.
Currently, 70% of child sexual violence cases are dismissed, and judge Edouard Durand, the Commission’s president, said: “The nub of the problem is the rate of cases that are shelved, which is too high, and the rate of detection of sexual violence, which is too low.”
“We need to bolster detection and consolidate criminal inquiries, and the measures announced by the government tend to do this. We will be very attentive that they are put in place.”
Create a support network for professionals
The Commission report suggests that one in every ten people has been the victim of sexual violence during their childhood, and so professionals who work with children are very likely to encounter several cases in their career.
“This situation will probably generate stress for the adult,” Ciivise said, calling for the creation of a support network – perhaps in the form of a telephone helpline – for the professionals concerned.
Step up the fight against online grooming
Ciivise’s report states that cyberpédocriminalité (online crimes towards children such as grooming) is on the rise.
It stated in particular, there had been a large increase in incidents of ‘grooming’, described as “the act of creating an emotional relationship with a child in order to reduce their inhibitions in the hope of sexually abusing them”.
However, it said there are only 30 people dedicated to investigating these crimes across the whole country.
This lack of human resources results in a “very low rate of identification of attackers and victims.”
The report therefore states that more personnel and money must be assigned to the fight against this type of sexual violence.
Specialist care for victims
Ciivise’s report stresses the great suffering experienced by the men and women who were sexually abused during their childhood.
This suffering can affect their physical and mental health, leading to depression, flashbacks, unexplained pain, PTSD, addictive behaviours, eating disorders and sometimes resulting in suicide attempts.
In every 10 male victims interviewed for the study, four said that they have had problems with addiction, and nearly half of female victims have experienced an eating disorder.
“I feel like I’m unable to be in my body. In fact, I’m not there. I’m somewhere else. As if I had died inside,” one person said.
More than three in every 10 victims also said that their experiences have had an enduring impact on their libido.
“It is as if my cells physically remember. As if I were feeling it within my whole body, all the time.”
The Commission is calling, therefore, for greater support for those who were sexually abused during their childhood, with help from professionals specialising in psychological trauma.
This care would be free for the victims.
A widespread information campaign
In 2002, the French authorities launched a campaign called ‘Se taire, c’est laisser faire’ (Keeping quiet is letting it happen), in a bid to encourage conversations about childhood sexual violence.
However, since then, there have been no follow-up campaigns.
“Preventing sexual violence is a collective responsibility. It is a huge issue which must mobilise our whole society. There is a need for a big national campaign,” the report said.
Ciivise stated that the public needs to be aware of how child victims of sexual abuse may act, and what resources are available to help them.
The report said that this campaign should be “ambitious, repeated and accessible to all, especially people with disabilities.”
The publication of the report follows that of La Familia Grande, a bestselling book written by Camilla Kouchner.
In it, she accuses her step-father, former university professor and politician Olivier Duhamel, 71, of sexually abusing her adolesent twin brother in the 1980s.
French media reported that Duhamel admitted to the abuse in April 2021, but it is thought he will not now face prosecution because the case may now fall outside of the statute of limitations for criminal charges (ie. the alleged offence may have been too long ago).
However the book’s publication encouraged people to speak out about historic family abuse, and led prosecutors nonetheless to open an investigation into the allegations against Duhamel in January 2021. It aims to find out if there were any other victims and to clarify the facts of the case and whether in fact it does fall outside the statute of limitations or not.
It also prompted President Emmanuel Macron to call for the rules on incest and child sexual abuse to be tightened.