Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux calls for justice as French students allege sex assault by police

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Annie Ernaux, the 2022 Nobel literature laureate, has backed calls for a thorough investigation after four female students said they were sexually assaulted by police in the western city of Nantes following a protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s deeply contentious pension reform.

Ernaux was among 45 signatories of an open letter on Sunday voicing outrage at the alleged assault, which comes amid intense criticism of heavy-handed policing of pension protests sweeping the country.  

The incident took place on March 14 as a group of several dozen students returned from a union protest on the city’s ring road. The students said they were surrounded and violently searched by police officers tailing them.

Four female students later filed a complaint for “sexual violence by a public official”, alleging that they were groped and subjected to degrading and humiliating slurs. The women, aged around 20, said officers “reached inside their underwear”, their lawyer Aurélie Rolland told reporters.

Two of the plaintiffs told France 3 television they were dragged on the ground before a female officer “inserted a finger inside (their) vagina” while insulting them.

Police have described the accusations as “slanderous”, in turn accusing the students of violent behaviour.

Protesters use umbrellas as shields during scuffles with riot police in Nantes, western France, on March 23, 2023.
Protesters use umbrellas as shields during scuffles with riot police in Nantes, western France, on March 23, 2023. © Jeremias Gonzalez, AP

Following the women’s complaint, prosecutors ordered the police inspectorate, the IGPN, to investigate the accusations – a move deplored by Ernaux and her fellow signatories, who said the case should be handed over to a body independent of the police.

“There is no place for humiliation and violence against women in the society we wish for,” they wrote in their open letter published by the Journal du dimanche, vowing to closely monitor the case.

The authors also called on French and international rights groups to document the “affaire de Nantes”, noting that such groups have “once again voiced their concern” over police’s handling of protests against government plans to raise France’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.

‘Strategy of repression’

Two months of peaceful mass protests have given way to violent clashes since the government used special executive powers on March 16 to ram its deeply unpopular reform through parliament, sparking days of unrest in Paris and other cities.

On Friday, the Council of Europe became the latest body to condemn French police’s “excessive use of force” against protesters, echoing similar warnings by Amnesty International, France’s human rights ombudswoman, Claire Hédon, and even the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association, Clément Voule.

The unrest has revived a longstanding debate on policing in France, and once again highlighted the lack of checks on law enforcement in a country where the minister in charge of police oversight is commonly referred to as “France’s top cop”.

During heated exchanges in the National Assembly last week, opposition lawmaker Andy Kerbrat challenged Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin over his failure to address the alleged sex assaults in Nantes.

Kerbrat, an MP from the Nantes region, accused Darmanin of pursuing a “strategy of repression”, noting the minister’s false claims that taking part in an undeclared protest constitutes “an offence”.

Darmanin did not answer Kerbrat’s queries, stressing instead the high number of police officers injured in clashes with protesters and saluting their courage.

The “affaire de Nantes” is not the first time Ernaux, a fierce critic of Macron and his government, has waded into the country’s festering debate over pension reform.

Earlier this year, the Nobel laureate signed a petition denouncing a reform that “runs contrary to the history of social progress, (…) hitting hardest those who work in the most difficult, physically and psychologically demanding jobs, and who are less likely to enjoy a peaceful retirement and imagine a future after the age of 64”.

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