As a campaign to crack down on sexual harassment intensifies, France is considering doing something long ago adopted in other Western nations: setting a minimum age of consent for having sex.
In recent court cases, judges refused to prosecute men for having sex with minor children because there was no proof of coercion.
“We want the irrefutable presumption that a minor cannot agree to engage in sex with an adult,” said Catherine Brault, a lawyer who defends child victims in Paris.
The measure is part of proposed legislation to curb “lecherous” behavior in France, part of the fallout from the sexual harassment scandals that have erupted in the United States and since spread to France.
Adults now can be charged with groping and sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison if they’re found guilty of abusing a child under 15. The more serious charge of aggravated sexual assault or rape of a child carries a sentence of up to 20 years — but coercion or violence must be proven.
As the law is written now it can be interpreted that “a girl can consent to a sexual relationship, but she cannot consent to groping,” said Brault. “This gap has been denounced for years and years.
Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet has suggested a legal minimum age of 13 for sexual consent. Other French leaders have called for an age of 15. Adults violating the age of consent would immediately face rape charges with or without signs of coercion.
In the United States, the age of consent set by the states ranges from 16 to 18.
The debate here was prompted by outrage over recent cases involving young children.
On Nov. 7, a 30-year-old French man was acquitted of rape after a jury found no evidence that he had forced an 11-year-old into having sex. The jurors ruled that the elements that constitute rape such as “coercion, threat, violence and surprise were not established,” since the girl had followed him willingly.
The girl became pregnant and gave birth to a boy who has been placed in a foster home.
“There’s no justice!” said Farida Oubelkacem, 46, a housewife in reaction to the verdict. “When this man is acquitted, what kind of message does it send? The justice system must set an example and in this case it sets a very bad example. This girl is destroyed, so is her son and all of her family.”
In another case in October, prosecutors declined to file rape charges against a 28-year old man who had sex with an 11-year-old girl, stating they could not justify the charges since she had shown no resistance.
For Fatima-Ezzahra Benomar, spokeswoman for the feminist association Les Effronté-e-s (The Shameless), securing an age of consent has been a long, uphill battle.
“French people are only discovering now that today’s law allows 11-year-old girls to consent to sexual (intercourse with) men,” she said. “We’ve been asking for this minimum age (of consent) for a long time. At 11, you can imagine that you have no clue what is actually happening to you.”