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CRIME

France recognizes modern slavery as crime

In a landmark ruling on Thursday France recognized modern-day slavery as a new crime punishable by up to 30 years in jail, as it attempts to crack down on forced labour.

France recognizes modern slavery as crime
File photo: Pierre Verdy/AFP

Slavery may be officially banned in France, but according to an anti-slavery committee there are still hundreds of cases – many of them unreported – of the phenomenon each year.

On Thursday the French government finally officially recognized modern-day slavery as a crime, meaning that those who hold people against their will and make them work for free, sometimes sexually abusing them, will now face much heavier sentences than before.

The Paris-based Committee Against Modern-Day Slavery says it receives more than 200 reports of enslavement in France every year, but the phenomenon is thought to be much more widespread as it often happens in private, within families.

In the bill, which was unanimously adopted by France's upper house Senate, slavery was incorporated into the French legal system as a punishable crime for the first time, with penalties from seven to 30 years in prison.

Previously courts faced with cases of modern-day slavery were only able to convict suspects on other charges — such as taking advantage of vulnerable people — that carry lighter sentences.

Almost 21 million people around the world are currently victims of forced labour, according to the International Labour Organisation.

"Victims are very often minors and come mainly from west Africa," Sylvie O'Dy, head of the anti-slavery committee, told AFP.

"They hope to find a better life in France. They are vulnerable and most of the time, have no clue about our country or our laws. They are therefore easy prey for unscrupulous people."

Nafissa, whose real name has been kept hidden for safety reasons, is a case in point.

Aged 11, she came to France from Niger on a three-month visa to spend some time with her aunt. But she was enslaved by the family and never returned to her country, forced to do housework and look after her aunt's children all day.

"I had to make meals too. But I was only allowed left-overs. Sometimes, she gave me rotten food and if I refused it, I didn't get anything for one week," she told AFP.

It was only seven years later, when she suffered a serious asthma attack but was not allowed to get medical help, that Nafissa decided to escape with the help of a neighbour.

She lodged an official complaint but her aunt was only given a two-year suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay 18,000 euros ($23,800) in damages — money she never paid out.

In March, The Local reported a case involving a 25-year-old man in the Vaucluse region of southern France who was accused of paying €4,500 for an African girl, who was treated like a 'modern day slave' at his home. The 14-year-old victim was allegedly whipped with a belt and banned from going to school. 

More recently in May, French President François Hollande announced that France would not be paying reparations for the role of the state-owned CDC bank in the slave trade, despite allegations that a €21 billion debt has crippled Haiti for centuries.

Reacting to the news, Louis-Georges Tin president of the country's Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN) told The Local the French government must face the truth regarding the crimes against humanity the country committed during the slave trade and how a racist attitude towards its overseas territories has left people living in abject poverty.

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CRIME

Top French central banker in corruption probe

French prosecutors said Friday that they had opened a corruption investigation into top central banker Sylvie Goulard, who simultaneously stepped down from the Bank of France.

Top French central banker in corruption probe

The probe covers suspicions of accepting bribes, influence peddling, illegal conflicts of interest and breach of trust, the national financial prosecutor’s office said, confirming a report from daily Liberation.

Graft-fighting group Anticor triggered the probe by filing a criminal report in June, with the investigation launched in September.

In a statement, the Bank of France said Goulard – a former MEP and briefly defence minister under President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 – would be leaving her post as one of the institution’s deputy governors on December 5.

Returning to the foreign ministry?

She wished to “return to the foreign ministry” where she started her civil service career, the bank said.

A source close to Goulard told AFP that her departure had “nothing to do with the investigation”.

“Neither Sylvie Goulard nor her lawyer were informed that the investigation had been reopened,” the source said.

A previous probe in 2019 was closed the following year after no crime was found, case files seen by AFP showed.

Anticor questioned in its complaint the work Goulard performed for the California-based Berggruen Institute think-tank.

She has acknowledged accepting 10,000 euros ($10,530 at current rates) per month working as a “special adviser” to the Council for the Future of Europe, an offshoot of Berggruen, between 2013 and 2016.

Goulard’s explanation

Goulard, who was also an MEP at the time, said her work had “no relation of any kind with the business activities” of the group’s founder, German-American billionaire Nicolas Berggruen.

She said her role included “reflection, moderating groups, organizing meetings”.

Her lawyer declined to respond Friday when contacted by AFP.

The Berggruen Institute denied in 2019 that Goulard had been given a fake job, highlighting that she organised meetings in Brussels, Paris and Madrid.

Goulard has also been charged in a probe into suspected fake jobs among assistants to MEPs from the Democratic Movement, a small centrist party that supports Macron.

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