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Incest accusation in prominent family prompts French national reckoning with child abuse

“I was 14 and I let it go (…). I was 14, I knew and didn’t say anything.”

“My stepfather would come into my brother’s room. I could hear his footsteps in the hallway and knew he was joining him. In this silence, I imagined things. That he was asking my brother to stroke him maybe, to suck him.

“I was waiting. I was waiting for him to come out of the room, full of unfamiliar and immediately despised smells,” the book’s author, 45-year old lawyer Camille Kouchner, wrote. “By not naming what was happening, I participated in the incest.”

More than a month after its publication, Kouchner’s book, “La familia grande,” continues to rock France.

In it, Kouchner accuses her step-father, leading French intellectual Olivier Duhamel, of abusing her twin brother starting when he was 14.

The twins are the children of former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.

Their step-father, Duhamel, is a Socialist former member of the European Parliament and a renowned political pundit who also headed the governing board of Sciences Po, one of France’s leading universities.

“Being subjected to personal attacks, and in an attempt to preserve the institutions in which I work, I terminate my functions,” Duhamel wrote on Twitter on January 4, shortly after the accusations surfaced. The tweet coincided with his quitting the governing board of Sciences Po as well as leaving roles in an intellectual club and a political science publication.

Duhamel has since deleted the tweet and his Twitter account.

On January 5, the Paris Prosecutor’s office announced it was opening an investigation into Duhamel for “rape and sexual assault by a person having authority over a 15-year-old minor,” despite the statute of limitations having run out.

CNN has reached out to Duhamel’s attorney for comments but has not received a reply. The political scientist has not publicly spoken since his resignation.

Duhamel’s stepson — Camille’s Kouchner’s twin brother — also filed a complaint against Duhamel last month, according to a statement by his lawyer Jacqueline Laffont obtained by CNN and initially sent to AFP news agency.

“In the context of the ‘Duhamel case’, the alleged victim informed the AFP, through his lawyer, Jacqueline Laffont, that he had filed a complaint against his ex-stepfather, Mr. Olivier Duhamel following the opening of a preliminary investigation by the Paris prosecutor’s office,” the statement read.

Top university shaken

The repercussions of the Duhamel case are being felt far beyond his family circle.

Sciences Po director Frederic Mion resigned on Tuesday in a letter to professors and students that was published on the university’s website.

The university is one of France’s most elite schools, having produced five French prime ministers and five French presidents including current leader Emmanuel Macron.

For the past month, Mion was under pressure to resign from student groups after acknowledging he was made aware of the allegations against Duhamel as early as 2018.

In his resignation letter, Mion referred to an Education Ministry report on his handling of the case, conceding that he committed “an error of judgment in dealing with the allegations that were communicated to me in 2018 as well as inconsistencies in the way I have expressed myself on this case after it broke.”

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In a statement released on January 7, Mion reacted to an article published in Le Monde newspaper the day before claiming that he knew of the allegations despite initially denying them.

“With neither tangible evidence nor any further or precise knowledge of the situation, I had difficulty believing that the rumors could be founded,” Mion wrote in the statement. He said that discovering through press reports the extent of Duhamel’s alleged actions was “a shock to me personally.”

But on Wednesday, in an email to CNN, former Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti — once a colleague of Mion at Sciences Po — said that Mion had called her when the revelations around Duhamel surfaced a month ago and allegedly told her: “We shouldn’t let anyone think that we knew.”

CNN has reached out to Mion but has not received a reply.

Mion is only one of many members of the French elite to be hit by the Duhamel scandal.

Jean Veil, a prominent attorney and old friend of Duhamel, admitted to Le Monde newspaper that he was aware of the incest for “at least 10 years,” invoking “professional secrecy” to explain his silence.

Camille Kouchner denounced what she views as the silence of the French intelligentsia in her book.

“Very quickly, the microcosm of people in power, Saint-Germain-des-Prés [a fancy neighborhood on the Left Bank that has long been associated with the French intellectual elite] was informed. Many people knew, and most pretended nothing had happened,” she wrote.

Victims come forward

Beyond the country’s elite where it originated, the Duhamel scandal has prompted a national reckoning on incest in France, with hundreds of purported victims coming forward on social media under the hashtag #MetooInceste. French people took to Twitter to share harrowing stories of childhood abuse at the hands of parents and family members and how that trauma — and the accompanying sense of shame and isolation — often persisted well into their adult lives.

Feminist thinker and activist Caroline De Haas, who was one of the initiators of #MeTooIncest, told CNN: “We wanted to show incest was a political, collective issue.”

She explained the #MeTooIncest movement came from a will to shift from the individual story of the Kouchner twins towards a collective history of incest.

Students demonstrate in front of the Sciences Po university to denounce gender-based violence. Signs read "We believe you" and "Silence = accomplice."

French lawyers have also seen a rise in the number of victims stepping forward to share their stories. Child protection lawyer Marie Grimaud told France Inter radio on Tuesday that “for three weeks we have received many calls from women who have realized the need to speak, to meet a lawyer, to file a complaint.” In addition to victims themselves, Grimaud said her office had been contacted by people “on behalf of a brother or little sister or a niece” who they believe “may be in danger.”

Facing Incest, an NGO supporting abuse victims, said 10% of French people had suffered incest, according to a representative survey of 1,033 French adults aged 18 and above, interviewed online November 4-5, 2020, by the IPSOS polling agency. “It is a mass crime we are talking about,” says the non-profit.

Facing Incest has long advocated for changing the legislation to better protect minors from sexual abuse within the family. With the Duhamel scandal grabbing French media headlines for over a month, the government has taken hold of the issue.

Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti told France 2 public broadcaster on Tuesday that the government planned to categorize any penetrative sexual relationship with a child under 15 as rape.

Currently, for a sexual relationship with a minor under 15 to be treated as a serious crime — rather than a lesser offense with a lighter penalty — it is necessary to prove coercion, violence, threat or surprise.

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“The issue of consent of the victim won’t be raised anymore. We won’t question whether or not the victim was consenting,” if they were under 15, junior Minister for Children and Family Adrien Taquet told Europe 1 on Tuesday.

In France, incest is legally defined as sexual intercourse between two people who are related to a degree where marriage is prohibited. Besides direct family ties, the prohibition also includes relatives by marriage — so divorcees cannot marry a child or parent of their ex-spouse for instance. The civil code doesn’t prohibit marriage between cousins.

Beyond that, incest is not illegal as long as the relationship is freely consensual between people above 15, the age of sexual consent in the country. While rape is prohibited no matter who the perpetrator is, sexual offenses committed by a family member or “any person having authority over the victim” face a heavier penalty.

Facing Incest said on its Twitter account that the government’s proposals on the age of consent were “elusive” and expressed the hope that MPs would bring more clarity as they work on the bill.

De Haas told CNN that the current debates around the bill “bothered” her due to their focus on repressive legislation. “What’s needed is a public policy of training and prevention,” she said.

Reflecting on the broader impact of the Duhamel scandal on French society, De Haas said the case had brought incest to the forefront of public debate and made it a high-profile political issue.

“That is thanks to the legacy of #MeToo” she said, noting that the movement brought a realization that sexual violences were not isolated acts but a social and political phenomenon.

Barbara Wojazer and Antonella Francini in Paris and Niamh Kennedy in Dublin contributed to this story.

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