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Tuesday 22 January 2019

A nation in the dock

Has France turned a blind eye to the shocking rape case involving its elite police?

By Kim Willsher

In the early hours of an April morning in 2014, a distressed and dishevelled woman sat near the entrance to Paris’s police headquarters and insisted she had been raped by several officers from an elite crime squad.

Emily Spanton was covered in bruises and scratches, her tights were missing and she was carrying her high-heeled shoes. A security guard told her she was drunk and should go home. Spanton refused to budge. “They raped me,” she said in French and in English. Several times.

Last week, nearly five years on, two of the four officers Stanton claims assaulted her after a boozy evening in a local bar, went on trial for viol en réunion – gang rape – a charge they deny.

There are moments when the #MeToo movement appears to have missed France, not by a mile, but by several thousand. This is one.

The details of what happened are sordid and shocking. Equally shocking is how Spanton, the daughter of a Canadian police officer, has been treated since she sat in the lobby of the building at 36, Quai des Orfèvres, refusing to “go home”.

She has been publicly named in France, after waiving her anonymity in interviews in Canada, blamed and shamed. French media reports suggested she was promiscuous, incoherent and a drunk, “overfriendly”, provocatively dressed woman who was asking for trouble.

Le Monde described Spanton as “a drunken and lively young woman in shorts, fishnet tights and heels…”

After insisting “they raped me”, Spanton was taken to hospital and tested for alcohol and drugs to establish whether her drink had been spiked. Police questioned her for hours and searched her hotel room and computer. Later investigators travelled to Canada to question her family, friends, colleagues and former partners. They asked about her clothes, her drinking habits and even when she lost her virginity.

“This isn’t some Kafkaesque nightmare, but the reality of my life,” Spanton said afterwards.

The accused officers were not tested for drink or drugs.  Their stories changed and investigators found they had “accidentally” removed vital evidence – including “explicit” photos and videos.  They have since returned to work and remain anonymous.

As the #MeToo movement swept the globe in 2017 following multiple allegations of sexual abuse by the Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein, it hit resistance in France. A group of 100 high-profile women, among them the actor Catherine Deneuve, wrote an open letter arguing for men’s “freedom to bother” women. They suggested #MeToo had gone too far and threatened French men’s “sexual freedom”.

This attachment to “sexual freedom” is one reason France has no legal age of consent or an offence of statutory rape. In 2018, a 28-year-old Frenchman accused of raping an 11-year-old girl successfully deflected the charge claiming she had “consented”. He was later tried for sexual abuse.

In August last year another incident highlighted what French women claim is a culture of sexual harassment:  a video of Marie Laguerre, a 22-year-old student, being punched in the face by a stranger outside a Parisian café after she told him to shut up for whistling at her, went viral.

Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu, of the French feminist group Osez le féminisme, said that Spanton’s experience was further proof of French society’s “extreme violence” against women.

“It shows that this culture of rape is so present in France, even in our justice system,” Rémy-Leleu said. “In this case we have seen the shaming of the [alleged] victim according to the length of her clothes, her tights, even the type of underwear she buys. We also  see that a woman has to be a thousand times more credible than her presumed aggressor…”

A foreign woman bringing a rape charge against French police in France was always likely to face problems. That Spanton has accused members of one of France’s most elite units, the Brigade de Recherche et d’Intervention – the BRI or “anti-gang brigade” – has made the case particularly problematic and put her, as her lawyer says, at a “considerable disadvantage”.

Spanton has undergone a total of 35 hours of questioning and legal proceedings, including being taken back to the scene the day after the alleged attack and asked to describe who had done what, how and where. She flew back from Canada for a traumatic face-to-face confrontation with the accused in the investigating magistrate’s cramped office.  It was widely reported that she refused to take part in a reconstruction, a highly unusual procedure in rape cases.

Then in 2016, investigating judges dropped the case, declaring Spanton’s evidence “inconsistent”.  They conceded that the police had lied, but suggested this was to protect their families. To Spanton’s lawyer, Sophie Obadia, the decision was “staggering and scandalous”. The public prosecutor agreed and referred the matter to the appeal court, which ordered a trial.

Obadia told Canadian television her client was brave for not giving up. “It’s been four years of fighting now.”

Last week, the three judges and nine jurors in Chamber 3 of Paris’s Assizes Court heard two contradictory versions of events.

On April 22, Spanton, holidaying in Paris, went to Le Galway, an Irish bar, where she chatted to a group of off-duty BRI members, a stone’s throw from their HQ. Known as “36”, it is a huge 19th-century building on an island in the Seine that has been immortalised in French films, television and literature, most famously as the workplace of Georges Simenon’s Maigret.

Some time after midnight, two of the officers, Captain Antoine Q, 40, and Major Nicolas R, 49 (unnamed under a French law protecting police in sensitive roles), suggested she accompany them on a tour of the celebrated offices. Spanton agreed. She was drunk, she said, and thought she would be safer inside the police station than trying to return to her hotel. Her father was a policeman. She had grown up with police officers. Police stations were safe.


Getty Images

The headquarters of the Judicial Police at 36 Quai des Orfevres in Paris

Except “36” is not a “commissariat”, but the force headquarters, and when she arrived it was almost deserted. Having reached Antoine Q’s fifth-floor office, Spanton says the officers’ attitude changed. She insists she was forced to drink whisky, then pushed to her knees to perform oral sex before being raped by several men. Eighty minutes later, Spanton staggered down the stairs and collapsed at the entrance.  A medical examination confirmed her injuries were consistent with her story. Toxicology reports showed a blood alcohol level of 2.6-3.3 g/l, with traces of cannabis, anti-depressant and an opiate, reportedly prescribed for migraine.

Antoine Q and Nicolas R, who were not immediately interviewed and returned home on the morning in question, told a different story – several different stories. Nicolas R at first claimed Stanton had initiated sexual contact. A few days later he changed his version, claiming she willingly performed oral sex. Antoine Q first denied any sexual contact until his and his colleague’s DNA was identified, proving otherwise. Then he too insisted Spanton had consented.

The head  of the internal police investigation team told the court: “I regret we weren’t called immediately.  If we had been, I could have made efforts to secure the scene. We could also have heard the officers more rapidly.” She added: “Basic investigations weren’t done.”

When investigators finally examined the scene, the whisky bottle and glasses had disappeared, along with Spanton’s tights. A few days later the bottle and glasses reappeared. The tights were never found.

Four officers were taken into custody. One was released and another, Sebastian C, declared a “person of interest” but not charged.

According to French reports, investigators established that the officers had deleted “explicit” messages and videos taken on the night from their mobile phones, but could not retrieve the data. The accused said they had erased them “by accident”, but one SMS sent by Nicolas R found on a colleague’s phone read: “She’s a swinger, hurry up.” A second SMS found on another officer’s mobile read: “After our little boozy evening, Antoine, the kid and Nico have taken a chick to 36 to shag her, except that she’s filed a complaint for rape.”

Investigators found it was not the first time BRI officers had taken women to their offices for sex, prompting the Paris Police Commissioner Bernard Petit to condemn this “absolutely unacceptable and intolerable behaviour”.

Consent under the influence of alcohol is a grey area in French law. Articles 222-23/24 of the penal code qualify “sexual penetration” by “contrainte” or “surprise” (constraint or surprise) as rape. Jurisprudence exists where “surprise” has been judged to rule out consent if a person is drunk. Spanton has never denied being drunk: she admits she was so drunk she could not have reasonably consented to anything.

After the shock to its reputation, the BRI and Paris police force have closed ranks. The Canadian government, currently occupied with the parlous state of relations with China after Beijing arrested two Canadians and sentenced a third to death, has kept its distance. With elections coming up, Justin Trudeau, the prime minister, has told his MPs to concentrate on domestic issues.

After an initial flurry of interest, on Friday, five days into the trial, the public benches were deserted. The trial is expected to last another two weeks and the officers face 20 years in jail if convicted.

In court, the Paris police force’s celebrated esprit de corps manifested itself in glowing reports given by the accused policemen’s senior officers. The men told the court the damage to their lives and careers had been “cataclysmic”.

Spanton, who no longer works and has returned to live with her parents, fights on. During her testimony she was once again asked about what she was wearing on that April morning, more evidence of what she described in a letter to Elle magazine as “France’s systematic misogyny”.

“Am I a libertine?” she wrote.  “An uninhibited woman? I was raped. Violently attacked by police in their office. Why do the questions focus on my personality and not the clear abuse of authority of which I was a victim…?”

Top image: Sophie Obadia, the lawyer for Emily Spanton, arrives at court