Adult sex with a minor under 15 will automatically be considered rape in France, the country’s equality minister has confirmed, following public outrage over two cases involving 11-year old girls.
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After conducting public consultations during a “tour of France on equality” and commissioning an expert report on the issue, “the government has decided to settle on the age of 15,” said Marlène Schiappa, the gender equality minister.
Currently, adult sex with a minor aged under 15 is classified as sexual assault or molesting, punishable by up to five years in prison, compared with 20 for rape.
Adults wielding some form of authority over the child face stiffer sentences.
However, the law does not automatically treat such cases as rape unless there is proof of force.
The government promised change after uproar over rulings last autumn in which two 11-year-old girls were deemed not to have been raped by much older men because they had apparently agreed to sex.
In one of the cases, a 30-year old man was acquitted after the court determined the girl had not been subjected to "constraint, threat, violence or surprise".
In the other, prosecutors initially decided the 28-year old man should be tried for molesting the 11-year-old but not rape as there was no sign of resistance. However, judges called for a new inquiry and a fresh probe into “rape of a 15-year-old” was opened last month.
In December, a French school teacher was handed a suspended sentence for sleeping with a 14-year old pupil.
The relatively lenient verdict – the prosecutor had asked for a prison term of five years in prison, two suspended – came after the judge quashed a request from the girl’s family for a fresh investigation. Her parents had argued that police had failed to grasp the gravity of the case, treating it as a "simple love affair".
France long had a relatively laid-back attitude to relationships between teens and adults. President Emmanuel Macron met his future wife Brigitte when he was around 14 and she was 38 and a teacher at his sixth-form college. The pair started dating when he was 16.
In December, Mr Macron said he would push for the age of sexual consent and the presumption of rape to both be set at 15, saying: “Our criminal law contains intolerable ambiguities."
Slamming what he called tolerance of the violence and harassment that French men inflicted on women, he said: “Our entire society is sick with sexism.”
However, he added that France must not become a country of “denunciation . . . where each relationship between men and women is suspicious,” he said. “We are not a puritanical society.”
There was considerable debate over the age beyond which sex with a minor should be considered rape, with some saying it should start at 13.
The expert panel considered that an adolescent “deserves reinforced protection up until the age of 15 or 16 due to the deep marks triggered by sexual trauma on the functioning of the brain”.
Psychiatrist Muriel Salmona told AFP that the “image of Lolitas” was still too present in the French collective conscience and that the change would be “a good decision” to protect minors.
However, in January, family planning said it was “worried” about the slated change “defining an age to recognise consent” as it could “limit young people’s sexual freedom” and that the priority should be on better education in schools on relationships and sex.
The change is part of a wider law "against sexist and sexual violence” that will be presented to the council of ministers on March 21.
Under the new law, men who harass women on French streets with wolf-whistles or lecherous behaviour risk on-the-spots fines starting at €90 (£79) and possibly up to €750.
It is also expected to extend the statute of limitations for accusations of underage rape to allow prosecutions during a 30-year period after the victim turns 18 instead of the current 20 years.