The trial, which involves 66 defendants and is expected to last four months, is being heard in a specially-built wooden hall in the law courts in the western town of Angers.

The accused face sentences ranging up to life imprisonment if convicted.

Sixty lawyers are involved in the trial, and the 430-page prosecution case will take four clerks three days to read out to the three judges and the nine-person jury.

The testimony to be heard from the victims, who were aged from six months to 12 years at the time, has been deemed so painful that jury members will have access to a special psychiatric team.

A total of 39 men and 27 women are going on trial. Of the 66 defendants, 39 face charges of raping children under 15 and of pimping.

The victims are not expected to appear in court, and their testimony has been videotaped.

Proceedings are closed to the public but covered by 150 accredited news reporters, and police have blocked the street outside.

All the defendants come from the poorest and least educated sections of society, and lived in the same rundown council estate dependant on welfare benefits.

The BBC reports the couple at the centre of the trial were both sexually abused as children, and in turn abused their own kids and allowed family members, neighbours and friends to do the same.

It is alleged convicted sex offender Eric Joubert and another former offender Franck Vergondy founded the ring.

The crimes, which allegedly took place between January 1999 and February 2002, came to light when investigators monitored the activities of Joubert.

According to the prosecution, between 1999 and 2002, nearly 50 children were raped or abused — though the overall number could be much higher.

The prosecution has gathered evidence apparently showing parents bartered their own children for small sums of money, food parcels and cartons of cigarettes.

One girl of 10 was allegedly raped by more than 30 adults.

The crimes were apparently perpetrated in Joubert’s flat and in sheds on garden allotments.

The case is expected to be handled with caution after a previous paedophile trial in northern France last year.

The Outreau trial saw 13 people implicated in abusing children on the basis of one woman’s evidence and some corroborating victims’ statements.

But the woman later admitted in court she had lied, and the children’s testimony was found to be unreliable.

Nevertheless, many of the accused in that case languished in prison for four years, and one committed suicide, before the truth finally emerged in court.

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