Despite promises to reassess child sex laws, the rules governing consent in France are still murky. A court case involving an 11-year-old girl is being closely watched by children’s rights advocates.
Can an 11-year-old consent to sex with an adult? Legally in France, the answer is not automatically “No”. A court case set to open this afternoon in the city of Pointoise, outside of Paris, will revisit that question.
It’s one that has been the source of public debate in France over the past few months.
Currently in France, the age of consent is 15, but in order to get a rape conviction prosecutors have to prove that a sex act was committed with violence, coercion, threat or surprise. Without those factors, a person can only be charged with sexual abuse, and not rape.
Sexual abuse carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of €87,000, whereas the punishment for the rape of a person under 15 is up to 20 years in prison.
Today’s case involves a 29-year-old man who allegedly had sex with an 11-year-old girl last year. In a decision that shocked many, the prosecutor chose to charge the man with “sexual abuse of a minor under 15 years old” instead of rape, the charge that the girl’s family had asked for.
Defense lawyers have said the man and the girl met in a small park and that the girl voluntarily followed the man into an apartment block and freely consented to have sex with him. They’ve also claimed that their client, then aged 28, thought the girl was over 15. She is now 12.
A lawyer for the girl’s family has said she was too young and confused to resist. Lawyers for the family are expected to ask the court to re-characterise the charge from sexual abuse into rape. If the presiding judge grants their request, the case may be sent back to investigators and the trial postponed to a later date.
In November, a jury in Meaux, east of the French capital, acquitted a man who had been accused of raping an 11-year-old girl in 2009, when he was 22. The jury said that the prosecution had not convincingly established any of the legal elements required for a rape verdict.
Child’s rights advocates and feminist groups contend that France’s rules on child sex abusers are too lax. French President Emmanuel Macron’s government has said it will introduce a minimum legal age for consent, below which sex would, by definition, be coercive.
The anticipated bill is a broad-based measure aimed at “fighting sexual and sexist violence” and is likely to be presented to the French Cabinet next month. The minimum age of consent is expected to be between 13 and 15.
Late last year, the nation’s justice minister said she thought 13 years old could be a reasonable age.
There are currently no laws in France that automatically define sex with someone below a certain age as rape.
“The French justice system is made so that we don’t, contrary to other countries, including Britain, have a presumption of the absence of consent for young children,” lawyer Pascal Cussigh told FRANCE 24 in November. “One must establish, even if a child is 7, 9, or 11 years old, that the child did not consent to a sexual act with an adult.”