The lower house of the French parliament this week approved a bill that would set a clear age of consent for the first time in the country’s history, setting it at 15.
The bill, which comes after years of debate and a series of sexual abuse scandals, qualifies sexual relations between an adult and a minor under the age of 15 as rape, with some exceptions. The bill will now be sent to the upper house, where it is expected to pass in April.
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Justice Minister Eric Dupont-Moretti said on Monday: “No adult will be able to benefit from the consent of a minor”, adding: “Children are prohibited”.
What is the current French law on consent?
Under current French law, there is no formal age of consent. This means that children can legally be considered capable of consenting to sex. Although it is illegal for adults to have sex with children under the age of 15, these offenses are not automatically considered rape and are punished less severely.
A rape charge – punishable by 20 years – is only considered when there is evidence of “force, threat, violence or surprise”. Without such evidence, suspects are charged with the lesser offense of sexual assault, which carries a sentence of up to 7 years. As children’s consent is legally meaningful, child rape cases become extremely difficult to prove, as courts are faced with the delicate task of relying on a child’s testimony.
The same happened on Wednesday when France’s Supreme Court of Appeal ruled that three firefighters accused of having sex with a girl when she was aged 13 to 15 should not be charged with rape, but sexual assault.
Critics have long blamed the current law, as well as statute of limitations, for obstructing the prosecution of cases of sexual abuse.
How would the proposed French change things?
When the new legislation comes into force, France will treat sex with a minor under the age of 15 as rape – regardless of the circumstances – meaning perpetrators will no longer be able to invoke consent to reduce charges. Adults accused of having sex with someone under that age would be charged with statutory rape, punishable by 20 years in prison.
However, such relationships would not be punishable if the age difference between consensual partners is less than 5 years. This exemption, which falls under a so-called “Romeo and Juliet” clause, aims to authorize sexual relations between a minor under 15 years of age and an adult under five years older. The exemption would not apply in cases of rape or assault.
Dupont-Moretti said: “I don’t want to bring an 18-year-old to justice because he had a consenting relationship with a 14-and-a-half-year-old girl.”
The bill also amends the laws on incest – that is, sexual abuse by relatives, including those not related by blood. The incest ban would now apply to sexual relations between minors under the age of 18 and their in-laws.
In addition, those found guilty of inciting children under the age of 15 via the Internet to commit sexual acts now face a 10-year prison sentence and a fine of 1.5 lakh euros.
The age of consent bill comes two years after France tightened laws against sex crimes and extended the statute of limitations for rape against a minor from 20 to 30 years. This period will now be extended beyond 30 years in cases where the adult is a multiple offender; which means that the law would come into force after the last suspected violation.
What prompted France to take this step?
The bill follows a series of scandals that have rocked France in recent times.
Last year, award-winning writer Gabriel Matzneff was indicted for rape after being accused by a woman 36 years his junior of grooming her for sex with him in the mid-1980s, when she was 14 years old.
But a major push for the passage of the bill came in January this year, when prominent scholar Olivier Duhamel was accused by his stepdaughter, Camille Kouchner, of sexually abusing his twin brother in his family. childhood. This prompted Duhamel to resign from the prestigious Sciences Po University in Paris.
The scandal led to a wave of testimonies from women who said they had been abused by relatives, sparking a movement online with the hashtag #MeTooIncest.