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CRIME

Twice victimised: French women accuse police of downplaying rape

Four years after the #MeToo movement, French victims of gender-based violence are still struggling to obtain justice, with the police accused of failing to take their complaints seriously.

Montpellier's main police station, where sexual assault victims claim to have been stigmatised.
Montpellier's main police station, where sexual assault victims claim to have been stigmatised. Photo: SYLVAIN THOMAS / AFP.

In the past weeks, France has been gripped by a wave of new stories of sexual assault and harassment and complaints this time are focusing on the way police treat women who come forward to report cases of assault or abuse.

The outpouring was triggered by an Instagram post by feminist Anna Toumazoff relating women’s experience when reporting attacks at the main police station in the southern city of Montpellier.

Toumazoff described victims as being stigmatised, humiliated and made to feel guilty by the police, two years after the government launched a major drive to train up officers on handling cases of gender-based violence.

“In France, police ask rape victims if they had an orgasm,” Toumazoff tweeted, referring to the case of a 19-year-old woman who reported a rape in early September.

Toumazoff claimed rape victims were told that a person who has been drinking had “automatically consented” to sex and that they “should not destroy lives” by bringing charges against their attackers.

Montpellier police in dock

The allegations led thousands of abuse victims across France to share stories of dismissive or contemptuous treatment by police, using the hashtag “DoublePeine” (victimised twice).

The state’s representative in the Herault region where Montpellier is located threatened Toumazoff with a lawsuit for slander.

But the government of Emmanuel Macron, who has made tackling violence against women a key theme of his presidency, lent a more sympathetic ear.

Last week, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin reported that around 90,000 police officers had received training over the past two years in handling abuse cases with empathy and sensitivity.

But he admitted that there was “certainly” room for improvement and promised an investigation into the Montpellier complaints.

Echoes of #MeToo

There have been several French offshoots of the global #MeToo movement smashing taboos around sexual harassment and assault.

In 2017, the #BalancetonPorc (Expose Your Pig) hashtag was used by thousands of women to post stories of abuse.

Three years later, a scandal involving a prominent intellectual accused of sexually abusing his teenage stepson triggered thousands of people to share harrowing accounts of abuse within families, using the #Metooinceste slogan.

The reckoning with abuse has extended to cinema, politics and elite colleges in a country where seduction is traditionally viewed as an integral part of French culture and women who complained about harassment were often dismissed as puritanical.

‘Not a child molester’

On the doublepeine.fr website, hundreds of women describe their struggle to have their cases taken seriously by police.

One said she was date raped and then told by police that she should drop the complaint because her attacker had “suffered enough” by being called in for questioning.

Another woman claimed that police brushed off her repeated complaints of domestic violence, on the basis that her husband was “not a child molester”.

Faced with such attitudes, several women said they withdraw their complaints.

Bringing in lawyers

Fabienne Boulard, a senior police officer who trains fellow officers on how to handle domestic violence cases, admitted to AFP that the police’s response was “still not the best”.

Officers still needed much help to navigate complex issues like the psychological violence that often accompanies domestic abuse cases, she said.

Darmanin has proposed sending officers to meet victims at a safe place to register their complaint instead of making them come to the police station.

But the #NousToutes (All of Us) feminist group said the problem was not where, but how police interacted with victims.

A group of around 100 lawyers has lobbied the government to allow rape victims to bring a lawyer when filing complaints, with gender equality minister Elisabeth Moreno saying she is “favourable” to the idea.

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POLITICS

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women’s swimwear?

Bikini, topless, swimsuit, wetsuit, burkini - what women wear to go swimming in France is apparently the business of the Interior Minister. Here's why.

Burkini: Why is the French interior minister getting involved in women's swimwear?

It’s a row that erupts regularly in France – the use of the ‘burkini’ swimsuit for women – but this year there is an added wrinkle thanks to the country’s new anti-separatism law.

What has happened?

Local authorities in Grenoble, eastern France, have updated the rules on swimwear in municipal pools.

French pools typically have strict rules on what you can wear, which are set by the local authority.

For women the rule is generally a one-piece swimsuit or bikini, but not a monokini – the term in France for wearing bikini bottoms only, or going topless. For men it’s Speedos and not baggy swim-shorts and many areas also stipulate a swimming cap for both sexes.

These rules typically apply only to local-authority run pools, if you’re in a privately-owned pool such as one attached to a hotel, spa or campsite then it’s up to the owners to decide the rules and if you’re lucky enough to have a private pool then obviously you can wear (or not wear) what you want.

READ ALSO Why are the French so obsessed with Speedos?

Now authorities in Grenoble have decided to relax their rules and allow baggy swim shorts for men while women can go topless (monokini) or wear the full-cover swimsuit known as the ‘burkini’. This is essentially a swimsuit that has arms and legs, similar in shape to a wetsuit but made of lighter fabric, while some types also have a head covering.

Is this a problem?

No-one seems to have had an issue with the swim shorts or the topless rule, but the addition of the ‘burkini’ to the list of accepted swimwear has caused a major stir, with many lining up to condemn the move.

Those against it insist that it’s not about comfy swimwear, it’s about laïcité – that is, the French secularism rules that also outlaw the wearing of religious clothing such as the Muslim headscarf and the Jewish kippah in State spaces such as schools and government offices.

READ ALSO Laïcité: How does France’s secularism law work?

The burkini is predominantly worn by Muslim women, although some non-Muslim women also prefer it because it’s more modest and – for outdoor pools – provides better sun protection. 

Grenoble’s mayor Eric Piolle, one of the country’s highest profile Green politicians who leads a broad left-wing coalition locally, has championed the city’s move as a victory.

“All we want is for women and men to be able to dress how they want,” Piolle told broadcaster RMC.

Is this France’s first burkini row?

Definitely not, the modest swimsuit has been causing a stir for some years now.

In 2016 several towns in the south of France attempted to ban the burkini on their beaches. This went all the way to the Constitutional Court, which ruled that such a ban was unconstitutional, and the State cannot dictate what people wear on the beach.

The situation in municipal pools is slightly different in that local authorities can make their own rules under local bylaws. Most pools don’t explicitly ban the burkini, but instead list what is acceptable – and that’s usually either a one-piece swimsuit or a bikini. These decisions are taken on hygiene, not religious, grounds.

The northwestern city of Rennes quietly updated its pool code in 2019 to allow burkinis and other types of swimwear, which seems to have passed unnoticed until the Grenoble row erupted.

Why is the Interior Minister getting involved?

What’s different about the latest row is the direct involvement of the Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin. He appears to have no objection to topless swimming in Grenoble, but he is very upset about women covering up when going for a dip.

No, he’s not some kind of creepy beauty pageant judge from the 1970s – he’s upset about laïcité.

Darmanin called the decision “an unacceptable provocation” that is “contrary to our values”.

He has ordered the local Préfet to open a review of the decision, and later announced that prosecutors had opened an inquiry into Alliance Citoyenne, a group that supports the wearing of burkinis in pools.

And the reason that he gets to intervene directly on the issue of local swimming pools rules is France’s ‘anti-separatism’ law that was passed in 2020.

This wide-ranging law covers all sorts of issues from radical preaching in mosques to home-schooling, but it also bans local councils from agreeing to ‘religious demands’ and among its provisions it allows the Interior Minister to intervene directly on certain issues.

So far this power has been used mostly to deal with extremism in mosques, several of which have been closed down for short periods while extremist preachers were removed.

Darmanin’s foray into women’s swimwear seems to represent an extension of the use of these powers. 

Is this all because there is an election coming up?

Parliamentary elections are coming up in June and the political temperature is rising. It’s certainly noticeable that in Darmanin’s initial tweet about the matter he referred to Grenoble mayor Eric Piolle as a “supporter of Mélenchon”, although Piolle is actually a member of the Green party.

Mélenchon and his alliance of leftist parties are currently the main rival for Macron’s LREM at the parliamentary elections. 

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