Yet what occurred here between 1999 and 2002, years when surveys named Angers as one of the best places to live in France, has horrified the nation. In what could become the biggest French criminal proceeding ever, 39 men and 27 women went on trial last month for involvement in a massive prostitution trade of 45 children - many of them their own. At least 26 men and 13 women are accused of directly prostituting and raping girls and boys, some of whom were still in kindergarten. Prosecutors say that over three years, some 21 couples traded their children for cash, groceries and, in one case, a new car tire. According to prosecutors, Marine V., a pretty blond girl who's now 9, was just one of the victims. She was allegedly raped by about 30 men, including neighbors, uncles, her father and grandfather. Marine's mother acted as banker, allege prosecutors, collecting envelopes full of cash.
In their small voices, the children's excruciating account of their nightmare was shown in videotaped testimonies in the courtroom last week. Sucking her thumb at times, Marine V. described playing sexual games of "doctor" with visiting men. The children's details of their long ordeal are almost unbearable to hear. But equally disquieting are the apparent failures of the French social system: police failed to protect the children from nearly three years of abuse, and did not act when social workers warned of possible pedophilia. And France's prisons could not apparently rehabilitate those accused men who had already served time for pedophilia; they resumed their crimes after they were released on probation. "This is a national problem," says Mathieu Garnier, director of the president's office for the local Maine and Loire council. "All French society needs new systems to be more efficient and new means to treat people sentenced for sexual crimes."
The details of the abuse are horrifying enough, and the tales of mothers as pimps and sexual assailants are especially disturbing. Thirteen of the women on trial are charged with raping boys under 15 and organizing child prostitution. "In France, a woman is always thought of as a mother, so it's almost impossible to think of her sexually assaulting children," says attorney Monika Pasquini, who is defending one of the women on trial. As the revelations have unfolded in Angers' newspapers, the townsfolk have absorbed the shock quietly. "For the moment, there is little feeling of scandal, but that could emerge as the trial goes on," says Yves Durand, a local journalist.
In a courtroom specially constructed for the trial at a cost of about €1 million, the accused sit silently listening as witnesses and prosecutors recount how some of the women helped their husbands organize a steady flow of customers to have sex with their daughters, sons, nieces and nephews. In their defense, many of the women have testified that they, too, were victims of incest, abused as children by alcohol-soaked men at home. Marine V.'s mother Patricia claims she was raped as a small girl by the man who acted as her father at home. Veronique R., 42, who allegedly traded her young son for sex, said she left home at 14 after being assaulted and beaten by her brothers and alcoholic father. "What are the qualities of a good mother?" a judge asked her. "To protect her son," Veronique mumbled, choking on tears.
Many of the assaults took place in an apartment in the gleaming modern development of Angers' Saint Léonard neighborhood, a magnet for young professionals. Residents spend afternoons at the Angers Tennis Club and children ride their bicycles along manicured pathways. To avoid the formation of impoverished ghettos in Angers, the city's socialist officials have for years settled low-income families like that of Franck V.'s among far wealthier residents, and heavily subsidized their rent. Franck and Patricia conducted their trade from their three-bedroom apartment in a four-story building on Rue Maurice Pouzet. Customers came and went, but the neighbors never pried. Now, there is a sense of shame among residents at having failed to notice the nightmare in their midst.
When Time visited the building recently, neighbors brushed aside questions, some closing their doors without a word. On the door of Franck V.'s old apartment, the current tenants have pasted a handwritten notice reading: "Ssh! Baby asleep, don't ring the bell." The community still seems unable to express its unease. "Everyone is horrified yet no one knows how to speak about it," says Saint Léonard's Roman Catholic priest, Father Charles de Bodman.
Police are still searching for a group of men, who the children say arrived at Franck V.'s apartment in suits and ties, with their faces hidden behind masks - a striking contrast to the largely uneducated, unemployed defendants who fill the courtroom in rumpled sweatshirts and scuffed sneakers. Franck V.'s lawyer Pascal Rouiller says he is convinced the men were part of a sophisticated network of pedophiles who tapped into Angers' underbelly as word of the prostitution ring spread. They brought in customers who "had money, made appointments, and were punctual," Rouiller says.
The brute violence and numbing banality of the crimes has jolted even seasoned lawyers and child advocates. "Their children were just a way of supplementing their income a little," says Yves Crespin, attorney for l'Enfant Bleu, a child-protection association in Bagnolet. "Parents and their friends were smoking cigarettes in the next room while men raped their children and the children were crying," says Alain Fouquet, lawyer for 11 of the allegedly assaulted children. "It was like a bridge party, or teatime. It's monstrous."
How could such horrors have gone undetected for so long? Twenty-one of the 23 families implicated were under the supervision of social workers, who paid frequent visits to their homes, offering advice on employment and finances. One teacher dropped by some of the children's homes regularly as part of France's "educational assistance" services for students needing remedial help. Three of the accused men had been convicted previously of pedophilia, including Marine V.'s grandfather, who in 1991 was sentenced to 13 years for raping his son.
Officials from the regional council that oversees Angers' social services told Time that they had sounded the first alarm about possible sexual assault two years before police rolled up the prostitution network. At the beginning of 2000, at least one social worker alerted law-enforcement officials that some of the children might have been sexually abused, says Dominique Le Clerc, deputy director of social services for the Angers-based Maine and Loire council. Two more warnings came in 2001, when a girlfriend of one of the accused told social workers about the sexual abuse - more than a year before the man was questioned by police. Says Le Clerc: "We had suspicions, but the proof wasn't strong enough for them to intervene."
Comment: France had by this time a system in place for people to rat out their neighbours they suspected of 'being different', under the premise of 'cultic deviances'. Raids of up to 80 heavily armed policemen were terrorising organic farmers and yoga centres under the absurd pretext that they might be psychologically harming their children with their 'different beliefs'. And yet here we see that the standard required for intervention on behalf of the state is proof that whole communities are prostituting their children to VIPs from all over France. The double standards are outrageous, but understandable when we realise that the French government isn't really interested in protecting children: its concern lies with enforcing conformity because 'the state always knows best'.
More than a year later, Franck V.'s children were briefly placed in foster care, where one child spoke of sexual assault. At the end of 2001, a niece of another accused told police she had been raped in 1999. Police then began an intense investigation. In February 2002, Patricia confessed to investigators. As the arrests accelerated, those not yet arrested burned key evidence, including photographs of sexual assaults, says Lollic.
A complex bureaucracy separates social assistance from law enforcement, so officials didn't follow each other's leads or grasp the enormity of the crimes. And social workers typically do not work on weekends or evenings, when, according to lawyers, much of the prostitution trade occurred. Yet officials say their social services are not under scrutiny. "The mission of social workers isn't to control families or be policemen within families, but just to help with families who are in difficulty," says Garnier, the local council official. While officials continue to say they did nothing wrong, the rumblings about institutional failure finally exploded earlier this month when police officers took the stand to explain what went wrong. Le Monde said Angers' police and judges were using "evasive justifications" about why they missed more than a year of warnings about child prostitution. And the town's local newspaper Le Courrier de l'Ouest said the police "with greater resources without doubt would have stopped the trafficking sooner."
"The mission of social workers isn't to control families or be policemen within families, but just to help with families who are in difficulty,"Really? Then someone ought to explain that to MIVILUDES and its witch-hunt of ordinary people who question the official line in matters of health and lifestyle and don't want their kids to be poisoned with vaccinations and franken-food peddled by the government's friends in Big Pharma and Big Agri.
Instead, they persecute the innocent while protecting monsters.
Meanwhile, the children remain deeply traumatized. After an intensive period of psychotherapy, 40 have been placed with foster families in western France, while five are living with their relatives. Social workers and psychiatrists keep a close watch on them. Many of the children still have difficulties eating and sleeping, let alone speaking to strangers or studying at school, according to their lawyers. "There was a family omertà [rule of silence], like the Mafia," says Jacques Monier, who represents 11 of the children. "Now, there are children who regret denouncing their parents. They think it's their fault that they are on trial." Reconstructing the children's lives will be essential in breaking the cycle of incest that has endured in many of the families for generations. "This will be a very, very complicated task and will take many years," says Pierre-André Julié, a psychoanalyst in Angers. The children's wounds run deep. And like those of Angers, they will take a long time to heal.