PARIS – In most developed countries, the age of sexual consent is a fairly straightforward matter.
Not so in France, which is in the midst of a furious debate over the issue after a man in his 20s was acquitted of raping an 11-year-old girl.
Under current French law, any sexual act by an adult with a child under the age of 15 can be prosecuted as a sexual offense, which carries a maximum five-year prison sentence.
But to prove rape, prosecutors must demonstrate that the sex was forced. This would be punishable by 15 years in jail.
In cases of very young children, under 10 for example, judges have no problem convicting, but it becomes more complicated when pre-teens are involved such as in the two cases that sparked outrage this month.
“We need to think quickly about the age limit, which can be 15, 14 or 13,” Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told the CNews channel on Wednesday.
Over the last month MPs, ministers and associations have been arguing that France needs a change in the law, which Belloubet has promised for the first half of next year in light of the two controversial cases.
Last week a 30-year-old man was acquitted of the rape of an 11-year-old girl, because the court ruled she had not been subjected to “constraint, threat, violence or surprise.”
The defendant, aged 22 at the time, claimed the girl had agreed to an encounter in a park in a distant eastern suburb of Paris and that she had lied about her age.
In another case involving an 11-year-old girl, a 28-year-old man faces charges of sexual relations with a minor, rather than rape, as this too was considered by authorities to be consensual.
Campaigners say no child of 11 is capable of giving consent, meaning that in both cases the sex should automatically be classed as rape — but French law says otherwise.
“Putting an age limit in place is crucial,” said Claude Halmos, a specialist in child psychology. “Consent is being capable to judge calmly for yourself what you want or do not want.”
On Tuesday evening, dozens of activists from a feminist group demonstrated at the justice ministry calling for the age of sexual consent to be set at 15.
An online petition urging a change in the law has also garnered more than 330,000 signatures.
Belloubet has suggested that 13 would be an appropriate age of consent, while Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa has suggested somewhere between 13 and 15.
In Germany it is fixed at 14, and in Britain and Switzerland at 16, but prosecutors usually turn a blind eye to consensual underage sex if both of the participants are around the same age.