France may soon have a legal age of consent.
The French National Assembly on Tuesday voted to reinforce the country’s legal arsenal against sexual abuse of minors. The subject was reignited after allegations of incestuous abuse rattled the French intellectual elite.
The bill, which still has to go through the Senate, aims to establish an age of consent in a country where the legislation protecting children under 15 from sexual predators is often seen as “ambiguous.”
A long-standing demand by activists, the new law plugs a hole in the legislation that has mystified the international press and contributed to the country’s image — both outside and inside its borders — as a laggard when it comes to fighting sexual violence.
Here’s what you need to know about the bill and the country’s current approach to punishing sexual violence on minors.
What’s considered rape in France?
France, like a majority of European countries, uses “coercion-based” laws when it comes to rape and sexual assault. Rape is defined in French law by sexual penetration through either “violence, constraint, threat or surprise” with the burden of proof being the same for minors and adult victims.
This legal system differs from “consent-based” legislation found in a dozen European countries such as Germany, Belgium, the U.K., Greece or the U.S. These systems define rape as sex without consent from one party.
In some countries, sexual intercourse with a minor under a certain age is treated as rape whatever the circumstances — defined as statutory rape.
NGOs such as Amnesty International have advocated for a switch to a consent-based system in France, since studies show that victims, especially minors, often “freeze” when they are raped, which means that the perpetrator doesn’t necessarily use violence or other forms of coercion.
Does this mean it’s legal to have sex with a child if there’s no coercion?
No. Sexual acts without “violence, constraint, threat or surprise” between an adult and a minor under 15, or a minor between 15 and 18 over which the adult has authority, are not considered rape but constitute another offense called atteinte sexuelle sur mineur, which loosely translates to sexual act with a minor.
Rape and atteinte sexuelle are prosecuted and punished very differently. People convicted of raping a minor under 15 can face up to 20 years in prison, while people convicted of atteinte sexuelle face a sentence of up to seven years. People charged with rape go through a criminal court with a jury, while people charged with atteinte sexuelle face judges in a different, lower court.
The threshold of evidence for an atteinte sexuelle is lower than for rape, which led to the controversial result of some cases being prosecuted as the lesser offence for reasons of expediency.
What would the bill change?
The current text of the bill would not change France’s coercion-based legislation. However “any act of sexual penetration … done by someone above the age of majority on a minor” under 15 would now be considered rape. This effectively creates an age of consent at 15. It is raised to 18 in cases of incest.
A so-called “Romeo and Juliet” provision in the bill states that a five-year gap is required for conviction. “I don’t want to send a 18-year-old kid to a criminal court because he had a consensual relationship with a girl who is 14 and a half,” Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti said during the debates at the National Assembly.
The bill also looks to expand the statute of limitation for multiple offenders. If someone is suspected of having raped multiple minors, the statute of limitations is extended to 30 years after the last suspected offense. Currently, each offense has its own 30-years statute of limitation.
What triggered the change?
Several high-profile cases have reignited France’s long-standing debate on age of consent.
In 2017, a criminal court in Melun acquitted a man who was charged with rape after he impregnated a 11-year-old child he had just met in a park. Since there was no violence, constraint, threat or surprise, the jury did not consider it a rape. He was later convicted on appeal.
The same year, Mediapart revealed that a 28-year-old man who had sex with a 11-year-old girl he brought to his apartment was charged with atteinte sexuelle by a prosecutor, after the girl and her family filed a complaint for rape. The criminal court in charge of the case asked for it to be reinvestigated.
Junior Minister Marlène Schiappa, who was then state secretary for gender equality, proposed the establishment of an effective age of consent at 15 in a bill meant to tackle sexual violence. But the related provisions were dropped after the Council of State advised that they could be deemed unconstitutional.
Early this year, allegations of incestual abuse against Olivier Duhamel, one of France best-connected political scientists, and the outpouring of testimonies from victims of incest, prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to push for new legislation protecting minors from sexual abuse.
“We are here. We are listening to you. We believe you. And you will never be alone again,” Macron said at the time.
What comes next?
The bill will now be considered by the Senate, which initially introduced it and could amend the text. In its first draft of the bill, voted in January, the chamber had put the age of consent at 13.