TV host’s rape allegations rekindle statute of limitations debate in France
French TV and radio host Flavie Flament has accused British photographer David Hamilton of raping her when she was 13 years old. France’s statute of limitations protects Hamilton from prosecution, and the case has revived a prickly legal debate.
Flament has alleged that she was raped in the southern French beach resort town of Cap d’Agde in 1987. France’s statute of limitations for the rape of a minor is set at 20 years after the victim has reached adulthood. Today Flament is 42, thus four years too late to file a lawsuit against the famed photographer.
Hamilton, 83, gained international notoriety in the 1970s and 80s as a fashion photographer, but is best known for his nude images of young teenage girls. Originally from London, he has spent most of his life in France. He was a local celebrity in Cap d’Agde, where he bought a beachfront apartment and spent summer holidays.
He has vigorously denied Flament’s accusation, saying in a press release that he was “particularly offended by the complete absence of the presumption of innocence” by French journalists, who have carried the information since the story broke.
However, at least two other women have come forward since Flament’s allegations, both claiming they were also raped by Hamilton in his Cap d’Agde studio as girls. It is an outcome that Flament likely did not expect when she first came forward with the accusation against her alleged rapist, whom she initially refused to name.
A ‘painful’ book
Last month Flament published a novel entitled “The Consolation” (La Consolation). It is based on her own story as a teenage rape victim, who for years is haunted by feelings of shame and guilt before confronting and overcoming those ghosts.
On the publisher’s site promoting the book, Flament writes: “I never could have imagined investigating my own life. It was a long voyage and I came back extraordinarily alive and hungry for the company of others. But it was a long, lonely, painful and frightening trip. A trip through memories hidden somewhere deep inside, a locked coffer, sealed with shame, protection, lies and denial.”
“I let the images from my childhood surface in a crazy disorder, I resisted the gusts and the whirlwinds, aided by my guardians in psychiatry. I pieced together the film that was buried since I was twelve,” she continues.
In the novel Flament doesn’t name her alleged rapist, whom she called “well-known worldwide”. However, shortly after the book’s release, two anonymous women told French magazine L’Obs that they had immediately recognised Hamilton as the antagonist, since they claim to have fallen prey to the photographer in the same setting and under similar circumstances.
In the wake of L’Obs report, Flament said her alleged rapist was indeed Hamilton. She explained her fear of being charged with defamation and the feeling she was alone had kept her from revealing his name. “Being able to share my pain changes everything,” she said.
But a hitch remains: the statute of limitations for rape of a minor has also expired in the case of the other two women.
Changing the law
The case has already resounded in the highest halls of French power. The country’s minister for families, children’s and women’s rights, Laurence Rossignol, this week announced she had entrusted Flament with the task of finding consensus over the appropriate length of a statute of limitations in rape cases.
But could Flament’s alleged revelation and the echo it has had in the media really help change the law in France? California’s move to eliminate its statute of limitations for rape in the wake of the Bill Cosby sexual assault allegations could be a source of hope for victims.
Several of Cosby’s alleged victims, whose abilities to press for criminal charges against the famous actor and comedian were precluded by a statute of limitations, have lobbied for changes in California and in two other states.
In recent years at least six US states have extended or eliminated their statutes of limitations on sexual assaults, and may be joined by three other states, the New York Times reported earlier this month.
The UK has no statute of limitations in the case of rape or other serious charges. But changing the law in France may prove a little more difficult, experts said.
According to Julie Klein, a law professor at the university of Rouen, eliminating statutes of limitations is almost unheard of in France. “In US law the absence of a statute of limitation is fairly common, but in France statutes of limitation are a general legal principle,” she said.
“French law recognizes the non-applicability of only a single category of crimes, and those are crimes against humanity. It’s hard to imagine that that exception be extended to common law crimes,” she added.
An extension on the statute of limitations in cases of child rape is a fairly new development in France. In 2004 the so-called “Perben II law” extended to 20 years the time people who were sexually abused as minors could file charges in French courts. The statute of limitations for rapes committed against an adult is 10 years.
Ernestine Ronai, the national coordinator for France’s Inter-Ministerial Mission for the Protection of Women Victims of Violence (MIPROF) says that law did not go far enough.
“It takes time for underage victims to understand what happened to them. [The crime] often resurfaces as a result of an event of therapy, which was the case for Flavie Flament,” Ronai added. She thinks the statute of limitations for people who were raped when they were minors should be extended to 30 years from the time victims reach adulthood.
Ronai said such a measure would make sense, especially in light of the Fenech-Tourret bill that is currently working its way through French parliament. The reform would extend the statute of limitations for adult victims from 10 to 20 years.
In the meantime, Flament is urging other victims of Hamilton’s to come forward, in the hope one of the cases will fall within the current statute of limitations. “We’re not the only ones out there, there are others. It’s obvious. I am sure that together we will not only comfort each other, but also act and be heard,” she said.