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Rape, Race and a Decades-Old Lie That Still Wounds

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The phone echoed in Farid El Haïry’s home in northern France. It was February 1999.

A rural police officer was on the line, asking if he could come down to the gendarmerie for a chat.

“I asked them why and was it urgent,” he says. It’s nothing serious, he remembers being told. Come when you can. It won’t take long.

Then a lanky 17-year-old about to start an apprenticeship in a bakery, Mr. El Haïry set out for the brick station a couple of days later. He grabbed some pains au chocolat and a Coke on the way for breakfast.

He would not return home for years.

He was charged with the sexual assault and rape of a 15-year-old girl from a neighboring high school, whom he knew only by sight and had never spoken to. The police had no witnesses, no corroborating evidence, just her word against his.

After a night at the gendarmerie, he was sent to a nearby prison that was notorious for overcrowding, drug use and suicide. He spent the next 11 months and 23 days in pretrial custody before being released with one painful condition — stay away from his home city of Hazebrouck, where his accuser, but also his friends and family, lived.

At a trial in 2003, a jury found him guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison, but so much of it was suspended that he would not return to jail.

Since then, there have been two Farid El Haïrys — the hyperactive teenager, described by classmates and relatives as a joker who played games and didn’t take school seriously, and the sober adult, who hides his distrust behind a smiling facade and must always work to control the rage he describes as a “cancer burning inside of me.”

Fuel for his rage included race. Mr. El Haïry, now 42, is the son of a Moroccan immigrant. He doubts a white citizen would have been charged on similarly flimsy evidence, let alone convicted. A growing pile of reports and court decisions show that racial profiling by the police is a serious, unaddressed problem in France.

For 23 years, Mr. El Haïry suppressed that anger — until another unsettling phone call arrived, this one interrupting his family’s Eid al-Fitr celebrations last year.

Again, it was the police.

There had been a development in his case, he learned. His accuser from so many years ago, now a mother herself, had been in touch. She had changed her story.

Sitting in the gendarmerie on that morning in 1999, Mr. El Haïry assumed it was a mistake. So did his family.

“It was impossible,” said his cousin Angélique Vanhaecke. “He never even talked to girls.”

But over time, as the investigation continued and Mr. El Haïry suffered strip searches and solitary confinement, he began to feel differently.

“Something was wrong,” he said on a recent walk around Hazebrouck to revisit the scenes of a crime that never happened.

“They were looking for a culprit,” he added.

As a French Arab who grew up in his hometown’s only housing project, he believed he made for a convenient one.

Hazebrouck is a middle-class city of 21,000 people in a region known for its rich farmland, work ethic and love of beer. Locals describe it as insular and quiet. Only 2 percent of residents were immigrants in 2019.

Before his parents rented a nearby house, Mr. El Haïry grew up in “the blocks” — a group of subsidized high-rises where many of the town’s few immigrant families lived.

His father worked at a steel plant in Dunkirk, 28 miles away. His mother, who grew up in Hazebrouck, was a cook in a hospice. Farid was the youngest of their three sons — a wiry boy buzzing with energy who roared around the neighborhood on a bike.

Brahim El Haïry and Jocelyne Dewynter, Farid’s parents, in the early 1970s.Credit…via Farid El Haïry

“He liked to laugh, tease and roughhouse,” Ms. Vanhaecke said. But, she added, “he wasn’t violent at all.”

As a teenager, Mr. El Haïry was stopped regularly for identity checks by the local police. Sometimes, he recalled, the same officers would stop him more than once a day.

Racial profiling by the police is a longstanding grievance in France. One 2017 study found that young men “perceived to be Black or Arab” were 20 times as likely to be subjected to identity checks compared with the rest of the population.

Mr. El Haïry had no criminal record.

Court documents give his accuser’s original account: Mr. El Haïry had stopped her on the street one winter evening with a group of friends, described as of Northwest African origin. Together, they hauled her down an alley, pinned her down and molested her, she said.

She knew Mr. El Haïry only by sight. But he was known as “a violent individual.”

Five months later, she crossed paths with Mr. El Haïry again near the public pool. This time, a different man, again described as of Northwest African origin, held her to the ground while Farid raped her. She said she had been a virgin.

Mr. El Haïry vehemently denied all of it.

The police were never able to identify the man from the second incident. The accuser did pick out three of Mr. El Haïry’s friends from the first. Officers obtained initial statements from two that they had crossed paths with her alongside Mr. El Haïry.

Under questioning from a magistrate months later, however, the stories shifted. The two friends said they had been pressured into their statements by officers, and denied ever seeing Mr. El Haïry and the victim together. The accuser said while the friends had talked to her, only Mr. El Haïry had molested her.

The case went forward anyway.

“The police should have immediately, immediately, immediately said to themselves, ‘It’s not just one thing that is inconsistent, it’s a lot of things,’” Mr. El Haïry said.

The gendarmerie in Hazebrouck declined to comment. They had not kept records of the investigation, an official said, and none of the officers involved still worked there.

After being released from custody, Mr. El Haïry moved into an uncle’s apartment in Pantin, a Paris suburb.

His parents traveled three hours to bring him groceries regularly. “I saw how my parents suffered,” said Christian El Haïry, Farid’s eldest brother. “They lost their little boy.”

Mr. El Haïry was required to report weekly to a police station, which often took hours. He lost his first job as a shoe salesman because he couldn’t explain the absences. He struggled to keep and make friends because he worried they would find out.

“He was broken,” Ms. Vanhaecke said. “He had a joie de vivre. From one day to the next, it was gone.”

The accuser cried continually through the trial, which lasted two days.

The prosecution relied on her story, a gynecological exam and psychiatric reports that assessed her as credible, suffering from a severe lack of self-esteem and disgust with sexuality. She was also a good student, they noted. Mr. El Haïry was deemed immature, egocentric and defensive. He had been suspended from school repeatedly.

Martin Grasset, Mr. El Haïry’s lawyer during the trial, saw the verdict as a partial victory. His client would not return to jail — a sign, he thought, that the jury had sensed holes in the case.

“It’s behind him,” Mr. Grasset recalled thinking at the time.

From the outside, it seemed that way.

Mr. El Haïry went on to manage a shoe store before switching to a mobile phone business in Lille. He married, bought a house and had two children.

But the conviction hung over him.

His name was added to the national sex offender registry.

In a brief article about the trial, which had been held behind closed doors, a local newspaper printed his name.

People looked at his family differently, said his brother Christian. “We all held a bit of hate in our heart,” he said.

Then, last year, Mr. El Haïry’s life was upended again by a call from the police. The accuser had written to the local prosecutor in 2017, admitting she had lied.

“Mr. Farid El Haïry isn’t guilty of anything and never committed any actions of sexual violence or rape against me,” her letter read. It claimed that she had been raped by her older brother from the ages of 8 to 12, and had only been released from the “grip of family secrecy” after years of therapy.

“I wish to set the record straight,” she wrote. “I feel ashamed and guilty with regard to Farid El Haïry. He didn’t deserve this.”

After the call, Mr. El Haïry rushed to tell his parents. His mother, then 69, was in palliative care with kidney failure.

Mr. El Haïry with his mother on the day that he told her his accuser had sent prosecutors a letter admitting she had lied.Credit…via Farid El Haïry

“She said to me, ‘Don’t worry Farid, I won’t die,’” said Mr. El Haïry, recounting the scene. “‘I will be in the courtroom when you are exonerated.’” Soon after, she moved back home.

But she was too sick to travel to Paris last December when judges on France’s top appeals court exonerated her son.

After the ruling, Mr. El Haïry dropped his head in his hands. His lawyers patted his back, calling the case “historic.”

Since 1945, only about 15 people convicted of serious crimes, like murder or rape, have been exonerated or found not guilty in France after a retrial, experts say.

That offered little solace. Stepping out of the courtroom, Mr. El Haïry was in tears.

“I did one year of imprisonment, but the 23 years of mental imprisonment are what’s hardest,” he told reporters. “One family was destroyed to protect another.”

Just over two weeks later, Mr. El Haïry’s father died of a heart attack. His mother died a few months after that.

Farid’s accuser was a girl named Julie.

Now in her 40s, she agreed to meet at her lawyer’s office on condition that we not reveal her family name or where she now lived. At the same time she wrote the letter about Mr. El Haïry, she sent another one to prosecutors, accusing her older brother of repeated rape. That investigation continues.

She talked for more than two hours, breaking into tears a few times. The story is still raw for her, too.

Julie was born and raised in Hazebrouck, where her family used to own a textile business.

When she sent the letters in 2017, she had been carrying the lie for almost two decades. Several things pushed her to confess.

She had recently given birth to her first child, a son, and was terrified the pattern of incest would repeat itself.

That summer, a victim’s aid counselor urged her to come clean.

In the fall, the #MeToo movement erupted. It inspired her, she said, even though her experience contradicted what many other activists at the time were saying — that the police regularly dismiss rape victims as liars.

“#MeToo is about the liberation of speech,” she said. “So I spoke out, this time to tell the truth.”

When she was 14, Julie’s first consensual sex with her boyfriend resurfaced traumatic memories of her brother’s incest, she said, triggering a gnawing anxiety.

“I fell asleep with the fear of rape,” she said.

Around the same time, her boyfriend clashed with Mr. El Haïry and became so scared of him that he refused to go downtown, just to avoid him. As Julie describes it, her fear of rape meshed with her boyfriend’s fear of Mr. El Haïry, and her decision to lie emerged from a teenager’s confusing jumble of feelings.

“I think it was a survival instinct,” she said. “I needed to speak out.”

While Mr. El Haïry is convinced that race and class influenced the police investigation and court case, Julie is less sure.

“From my adolescent perspective, it was not at all something that I saw or perceived,” she said. “Did it play a role? I don’t know.”

She did say, however, that every time she went to the “blocks” for dance classes, she was scared.

Once cast, the lie shielded her: She was recognized as a victim within her family without tearing it apart. The incest never reoccurred afterward, she said.

The story she told the police matched a common rape myth — that most rapists are strangers lurking in street shadows. In fact, “perpetrators are predominantly close relatives,” said Audrey Darsonville, a criminal law professor at the University of Nanterre.

Malicious or fictitious accusations of rape are extremely rare, Ms. Darsonville noted, but it is not uncommon for minors — especially incest victims — to initially accuse the wrong perpetrator.

“It’s a kind of cry for help,” she said, from victims who cannot bring themselves to name the family member abusing them.

Julie initially told a handful of friends that she had been raped by Mr. El Haïry. One evening, her two brothers overheard and told their parents. She did not want to file a complaint, she insisted, but her parents took her to see a psychologist, who alerted the authorities.

The investigation was a blur, she said. The psychologist and her mother sat in for her police interview. She barely interacted with her lawyer. She felt an “extreme solitude” and later became bulimic.

She was trapped in her lie. But Julie also acknowledged she did nothing to defuse it, even after it put an innocent teenager in prison for nearly a year.

In 2003, when she received a letter summoning her to court for the trial, she recalls thinking: “Either I kill myself, or I denounce my brother, or I go.”

So she went.

Now, as an adult and as a mother, she is coming to terms with her decisions. Her life was also cleaved in halves that she is now trying to restitch — the girl who was the victim of abuse, and the teenager who told a harmful lie to save her.

“One protected the other,” she said. “I had the right words, but not for the right person.”

For over two decades, Mr. El Haïry imagined the moment when the lie would be exposed, his reputation redeemed and his lives welded.

But that is not what happened.

“I didn’t feel what I thought I would feel,” he said over lunch in a Hazebrouck tavern. “I was screwed over for 24 years, and it took 30 seconds to exonerate me.”

Stories about the case ran on the national 8 o’clock news and in local and national newspapers. But true to the city’s tight-lipped reputation, the revelation caused little stir in Hazebrouck. Walking around the main square on market day, few locals knew about it. A former classmate running a bakery said he hadn’t known about Mr. El Haïry’s conviction in the first place.

The city’s current mayor, who was 6 at time of Mr. El Haïry’s arrest, said he considered the case a personal affair and not a reflection of Hazebrouck, which he pointed out has no history of serious crime or police abuse.

But in the blocks where Mr. El Haïry’s family is still known, the exposed injustice stings.

“No one believed it,” said Moustapha Zidane, 47, a youth worker at the neighborhood’s small community center. “We were stigmatized by the police.”

Mr. El Haïry’s North African heritage and his connection to the impoverished neighborhood made him an “easy target,” Mr. Zidane said.

Mr. El Haïry playing with his father, Brahim, during a trip to Morocco.Credit…via Farid El Haïry

“If you aren’t the same color as others, it’s not OK,” concurred Évelyne Lazoore, 63, outside the local primary school, where she had just dropped off her niece. “He was put in prison for nothing.”

Mr. El Haïry has filed a complaint against Julie, accusing her of wrongfully accusing him. An investigation is continuing.

He stews with anger at the justice system.

He learned about Julie’s first letter nearly five years after she sent it. Court summons for Mr. El Haïry were sent to the wrong address. The pandemic further delayed things. But even for France, a country where the wheels of the overburdened judiciary often move slowly, his exoneration process was particularly long, experts say.

“I could have enjoyed five years of that liberty and innocence with my parents,” he said bitterly.

Mr. El Haïry is also seeking damages from the state to compensate for the hardship of his imprisonment and conviction.

It is unclear how much he might be entitled to. In 2012, a man who had spent over seven years in prison on false rape charges received nearly 800,000 euros, or over $840,000, but Mr. El Haïry had far less jail time.

For him, the main loss is immaterial — the life he might have lived, the person he might have been.

Since he learned of Julie’s confession, Mr. El Haïry’s nights are sleepless again. He spends them turning over every detail of the case, asking questions that might never be satisfactorily answered. Just when he should be released from the lie, he is consumed by it.

“It’s my lullaby,” he said.

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