The horrific allegations in Julie’s case have galvanized protesters who want to see France institute stricter age-of-consent laws. Julie was 13 when she suffered a seizure in school and was rescued by firefighters. After the incident, she began to have severe anxiety attacks that repeatedly required firefighters to intervene, and developed a trusting relationship with the men, which they allegedly later exploited.
According to Julie’s family and lawyers, the firefighters got the teenager’s phone number and began sending her flirtatious messages. Over a two-year period, she was allegedly raped by 20 men. According to her mother, she made multiple suicide attempts and is now struggling with severe disability.
The Wednesday judgment from France’s high court backs a lower appeals court’s finding that Julie, now 25, “had the necessary discernment” to reject the men’s advances, and argues that investigators failed to establish that all of the men were aware that Julie was a minor.
Three of the firefighters admitted to having sex with Julie but said that they did so consensually. The other 17 men have not been charged.
Under French law, sex with a minor under the age of 15 is considered illegal only if it is not consensual. Given the difficulty of proving that a minor was forcibly or violently coerced, only about 1 percent of such cases result in convictions.
While rape charges would have carried a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, the firefighters will face sentences of no more than seven years if they are convicted of sexual assault.
Protesters who have rallied around Julie’s case argue that it exposes flaws in France’s age of consent law, saying that a child under 15 is not capable of giving consent, if the perpetrator is at least five years older. This week, France’s National Assembly voted to amend the law so that all sexual acts involving people under the age of 15 would be considered rape. The legislation has yet to move through the country’s senate, but President Emmanuel Macron’s government has expressed support for the change.
In a statement Wednesday, Julie’s lawyers pointed out the irony of having the high court decree that a minor under the age of 15 was capable of consent just days after elected officials decided otherwise. They argued that the judges should have taken into account that Julie was especially fragile and in a state of “great psychological distress” and criticized the court for reinforcing an “archaic ideology.”
The recent push to change France’s consent laws came after a prominent political commentator was accused of incest, leading to a flood of women coming forward with their own stories of sexual abuse. The outpouring has been described as a “second #MeToo movement” in France, one primarily focused on child sex abuse and incest rather than workplace harassment.
Julie’s story, which inspired the hashtag #JusticePourJulie, has added to the furor and sparked protests from feminists who see it as indicative of a larger societal failure to hold rapists and abusers accountable. Many had hoped that the case could set a legal precedent, opening the door for more victims to bring forward charges of child rape.
This report has been updated.