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Explained: France’s bill that seeks to set age of sexual consent at 15

The bill will now be sent to the upper house, where it is expected to be passed in April.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: March 21, 2021 10:29:02 am
Critics have long blamed the current law, as well as statutes of limitation, for hindering the prosecution of sexual abuse cases.

The lower house of France’s parliament this week approved a bill that would define a clear age of consent for the first time in the country’s history, setting it at 15 years.

The proposed law, which comes after years of debate and a series of sexual abuse scandals, characterises sex between an adult and a minor under 15 as rape, barring certain exemptions. The bill will now be sent to the upper house, where it is expected to be passed in April.

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Justice Minister Eric Dupont-Moretti said on Monday, “No adult will be able to take advantage of the consent of a minor,” adding, “Children are off-limits”.

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What is the current French law on consent?

Under current French laws, 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 sexual intercourse with children below the age of 15, such offences are not automatically considered rape, and are given lighter punishments.

A rape charge –which carries a punishment of 20 years– is only considered when there is proof of “force, threat, violence or surprise”. Without such proof, suspects are charged with the lesser offence of sexual assault, which is punishable by up to 7 years. As consent by children is legally meaningful, child rape cases become exceedingly difficult to prove, since courts are faced with the tricky task of relying on a child’s testimony.

The same happened on Wednesday when France’s supreme appeals court ruled that three firefighters accused of having sex with a girl when she was aged between 13 and 15 should not be charged with rape, but with sexual assault.

Critics have long blamed the current law, as well as statutes of limitation, for hindering the prosecution of sexual abuse cases.

How would the proposed French change things?

When the new legislation comes into effect, France will treat sexual intercourse with a minor under 15 as rape– irrespective of the circumstances– meaning perpetrators would no longer be able to cite consent to have charges reduced. Adults accused of having sex with anyone under that age would be charged with statutory rape, which would be punishable by 20 years in prison.

Such relationships would not be punishable, however, if the age gap between consensual partners is less than 5 years. This exemption, which comes under a so-called “Romeo and Juliet” clause, seeks to allow for sexual relationships between a minor below 15 and an adult who is up to five years older. The exemption would not apply in cases of rape or assault.

Dupont-Moretti said, “I do not want to put a kid aged 18 on trial because he had a consenting relationship with a girl of 14-and-a-half”.

The proposed law also changes laws on incest– meaning sexual abuse by relatives, including those not related by blood. The ban on incest would now apply to sexual relationships between minors under 18 and their stepparents.

Also, those convicted of inciting children under the age of 15 via the internet to commit sexual acts now face a jail term of 10 years and a fine of 1.5 lakh euros.

The age of consent bill comes two years after France toughened laws against sex crimes, and extended the statute of limitations for rape against a minor from 20 to 30 years. That period will now be extended to beyond 30 years in cases where the adult is a multiple offender; meaning the statute would kick in after the last suspected offence.

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What pushed France to take this step?

The bill follows a series of scandals that have rocked France in recent times.

Last year, prize-winning writer Gabriel Matzneff was placed under enquiry for rape after he was accused by a woman 36 years his junior of grooming her into a sexual relationship with him in the mid-1980s when she was 14.

But a major push for the bill to be passed came in January this year, when prominent academic Olivier Duhamel was accused by his stepdaughter, Camille Kouchner, of sexually abusing her twin brother as a child. This prompted Duhamel’s resignation from the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris.

The scandal led to an outpouring of testimonies from women who said that they had been abused by relatives, triggering an online movement with the hashtag #MeTooIncest.

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