France’s highest court has ruled that firefighters accused of raping a girl when she was aged between 13 and 15 should be charged with the lesser offence of sexual assault.
A woman known as Julie claims she was raped over a period of two years after being groomed by a firefighter in 2008, when she was a girl aged 13, and that he later introduced her to his colleagues. Three accused men have admitted having sex with her but say it was consensual. Seventeen others have not been charged.
On Wednesday, the cour de cassation, France’s supreme appeal court, rejected an appeal by Julie’s lawyers that the accused should be tried for rape. The judges said it was not proven the men had used “moral constraint”.
The judgment, which Julie’s lawyers attacked as based on “archaic ideology”, came days after the Assemblée Nationale, the lower house of the French parliament, voted unanimously for a new law that set at 15 the age under which no child can be considered to have consented to sexual relations. The legislation was drawn up after a number of sexual abuse and incest scandals involving underage children.
Julie says she was raped by the firefighters between the ages of 13 and 15. Three of them were initially put under official investigation for “rape and sexual assault on a minor of 15 as a group” but a judge later reclassified the charges as “sexual assault without violence, constraint, threat or surprise”.
Julie’s lawyers say the family intends to take the case to the European court of human rights.
“The cour de cassation had lots of other options … it could have upheld the need to look at assessing the consent of the victim when she is a vulnerable minor in a state of great psychological distress,” they wrote in a statement.
“It could also have taken into account the reality of the facts, and the reality of what Julie suffered. They should have made a judgment based on the behaviour and the actions of the firefighters who are accused, all adult who treated Julie as a sexual object.”
The court agreed to the lawyers’ demand for the firefighters to be investigated for the “corruption of a minor”. An investigating magistrate will examine whether the accused knew Julie was a minor, leading to the possibility of further charges against other firefighters she has implicated.
French law makes it an offence for anyone in a position of authority to have sex with a person under the age of 18, but to bring a rape charge the victim must prove she was forced, surprised or violently coerced. The maximum sentence for sexual assault is seven years, while for rape it is 20 years.
Julie says she was raped after Pierre, a firefighter based at a fire station in Bourg-la-Reine, Paris, helped her when she had an anxiety seizure in early 2008. He then obtained her phone number from her medical file, in which her age was also recorded.
According to statements to the investigators, Julie’s mental and physical health began to deteriorate after the assaults, which resulted in more seizures, and firefighters attended her home 130 times over two years. Julie became scared of going out and was prescribed anti-anxiety medication.
Her mother told investigators she was at first pleased that Pierre would call at the house to inquire after Julie’s health. “I even made a cake for the firemen,” she said. “We were grateful that they had looked after Julie when she was ill.”
The case has sparked national protests by feminist and women’s campaigners under the hashtag #JusticePourJulie.