France battles sexual abuse in the military

Female generals are at record high, yet cases of harassment among new recruits are common

Not since Joan of Arc has France had such a powerful female presence in its armed forces.

In the early 15th century, Joan was a solitary military commander. Six hundred years later, there are 19 French women generals.

Women now occupy one in seven places in the French military and a fifth of posts in the French air force. Across the British and German armed forces, the figure is one in 10.

The rise of the femme soldat has been a mostly unsung success in a country where women are only just beginning to conquer the heights of politics and business. This unsung success has also concealed a great deal of silent suffering.

After years of appearing to ignore the problem, the French defence ministry has launched a 10-pronged offensive against sexual harassment and sexual abuse in the armed forces. It has also removed one of the final gender barriers by announcing that, from 2017, women will be allowed to serve on 10-week underwater patrols in its nuclear submarines.

The only remaining all-male bastion will be the French Foreign Legion.

The defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, says that he was inspired – some might say shamed – to take action against sexual harassment in the military by a book published earlier this year.

In La Guerre Invisible (“the invisible war”) Leila Minano and Julia Pascual catalogued 35 cases, ranging from alleged constant sexual harassment to alleged rape, which are currently being investigated by the French military.

A 36-page official report presented last week said that there had been 86 cases of alleged sexual assault or harassment in the past 15 months alone.

Similar problems exist in the British, American and Israeli armed forces, but campaigns have been conducted to try to change attitudes. In France, according to the book and the official report, the scale of the problem has been systematically concealed. Until now, no statistics have been kept. Units were not obliged to report incidents to their military hierarchy or to the defence ministry.

Brigitte Debernady, the controller-general of the French armed forces, who helped to draw up last week’s official report, said: “The silence must end. We must now encourage women to talk.”

Ms Debernady says that the great majority of cases involve relatively young recruits – both male and female – from relatively poor and uneducated backgrounds. For many of these young men, she said, “it comes as a surprise” that sexually loaded comments or aggressive behaviour towards women are unacceptable.

Many of the young women are attracted to the military by choice rather than lack of other jobs, she said. “They are reluctant to complain because they don’t want to seem fragile. They say to themselves, ‘We have entered a masculine environment. We must conform.’”

The 35 cases investigated by Minano and Pascual suggest that sexual harassment is not confined to the lower ranks.

“Captain Carole” said that she had been subjected to a prolonged series of declarations of love and groping by her commander in chief, a colonel. During a trip to Paris, he raped her. “It was months before I could pronounce the word ‘rape’,” she said. “I blamed myself. I said: ‘We are trained in hand to hand combat. Why didn’t I stop him?’ But when that happens you are terrorised.”

A more typical case, perhaps, was Laëtitia, a 19-year-old new recruit, who was raped after being plied with drink by her 25-year-old corporal. She spent seven years trying to get her superiors to take her complaint seriously and became an outcast within her own regiment.

Leila Minano, co-author of the investigative book that forced a change of attitude, said: “Sexual violence in the French military has been a taboo subject until now. Women who complained were ignored, or transferred to another unit or forced out.”

Mr Le Drian last week announced 10 measures to combat sexual aggression in the armed forces. They include a 24-hour hotline that women can call and a new article in the military code giving women the same protection against harassment as civil servants. Statistics on complaints will be collated nationwide. And barracks will be updated to provide more separate and secure facilities for women.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all