Demonstrations will take place across France on Sunday to support a woman who was allegedly raped by 20 firefighters when she was between 13 and 15 years old. Her case is being considered by the country’s highest court this week and activists hope it will lead to an age of sexual consent enshrined in law as it is in the rest of the European Union.
Julie * says she was raped by Parisian firefighters over a period of two years, after being treated by Pierre, a firefighter who had assisted her during a severe anxiety attack when she was 13 at the start of 2008. Three of the defendants admitted to having sex with her but said it was consensual. In a diary written soon after, Julie says she was “terrified and paralyzed with fear” at the time.
Based at the Bourg-la-Reine fire station in Paris, Pierre obtained Julie’s phone number from her medical file, in which her age was also recorded. Julie says he bombarded her with “loving messages”. He later asked Julie to undress via webcam and, when the child complied, passed his number on to another firefighter who demanded the same.
Julie’s case will come to an end on Wednesday before the Court of Cassation, the Supreme Court of Appeal. Lawyers will argue that the 20 firefighters, who came from different stations, should be charged with rape. Currently, only three men are accused of “sexual violence”.
French law stipulates that having sex with a person in a position of authority constitutes an offense with a person under the age of 18. By law, to file a rape complaint, the complainant must prove that she was coerced or violently coerced; otherwise, the accused can only be charged with a sexual violation. The maximum penalty for sexual violation is seven years, compared to 20 years for rape.
According to investigators’ statements, Julie’s mental and physical health began to deteriorate after the assaults, leading to more seizures, and firefighters have visited her home 130 times in two years. Julie was afraid to go out and was prescribed anti-anxiety medication.
Her mother, Corinne Leriche, told investigators that she was initially happy that Pierre called home to inquire about Julie’s state of health. “I even made a cake for the firefighters,” she says. “We were grateful that they took care of Julie when she was ill.
In January 2009, Pierre came to the family home and Leriche took the dog for a walk. Leriche claimed that during this time he raped his daughter. “I thought he was the last person to do such a thing because he had helped her so many times and saw how vulnerable she was.
In November 2009, Pierre, in a full uniform, took Julie, 14, to her apartment, where she told investigators he had raped her again. Two colleagues came over and Julie says she was gang raped as the men watched pornography.
In 2018, following protests from feminists, a change in the law was proposed that would introduce an age of consent at 15. This would mean that having sex with a younger person would be considered rape. But the law was not passed after a government report concluded that it would lead to “a presumption of guilt.”
Julie was stopped from her medication in July 2010 as part of a treatment review and, with a clearer mind, disclosed the abuse to her mother. On August 31, Leriche filed a formal complaint with the police.
Six months later, the three men accused of raping Julie at Pierre’s home were placed under investigation, but no action was taken against the other 17.
During questioning, two of the accused men admitted to having “group sex” with Julie while on duty and wearing their uniform. Another admitted having sex in a toilet cubicle at a Paris hospital where Julie was admitted, but said she did not notice the child showing signs of vulnerability.
In March 2011, a judge was appointed to investigate the case of the three accused of gang rape. The investigation lasted eight years, at the end of which, in July 2019, the judge decided to drop the charges of rape and replace them with “consensual sexual relations with penetration with a minor under the age of 15”.
At the start of the investigation, four other firefighters who were present at one of the alleged rapes were charged with “lack of protection”, but all charges were subsequently dropped.
Upon hearing the outcome of the investigation in 2019, Julie attempted to kill herself, sustaining serious injuries in the process. The family rejected the judge’s decision and took the case to the Versaillles Court of Appeal. Last November, the appeal was dismissed because the court ruled that Julie had consented to the sexual acts.
Marguerite Stern and her feminist group, the Amazon will be one of the many women’s groups in France who will organize public events in solidarity with Julie.
“For 10 years they fought alone, now thousands of feminists from all over France are joining them,” Stern said. “We demand that firefighters be tried for rape and not for ‘sexual violation’. This culture of misogyny in our courts must end.
The prosecutor in the Julie case hopes that if successful, he will establish new case law to remove the need to prove the use of force or additional violence to obtain a conviction for rape of a minor under 15 years old.
Marjolaine Vignola, Julie’s lawyer, says: “All the stereotypes about rape are in this case: the judges and the psychiatrist say that Julie is a liar, that she consented to sex with all these men, and that she’s lying about the rape because she’s ashamed.
Calls for a minimum age of consent in France are increasing. Last month, the Senate backed a bill to make the age of consent 13 – a cut-off age deemed insufficient by child welfare associations.
* This is not his real name