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.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies