In March Equality Minister Marlene Schiappa announced to widespread support that the government planned to make 15 the age of sexual consent after a public outcry over two cases of sex involving 11-year-old girls.
After public consultations and the recommendation of a panel of experts, “the government has decided to set the age at 15,” Schiappa told AFP in March.
But things have changed since then.
In the end the plan to introduce a legal minimum age of consent into law which would have classed any sexual act by an adult with a child younger than 15 as rape rather than just a sexual offence as is the case currently, was dropped from the bill that was voted through parliament on Tuesday night.
Instead of introducing a minimum age of consent the bill creates a new offence of “sexual violation of a minor by penetration”.
This will be punishable by 10 years in prison, which is a shorter sentence than the 15 to 20 years reserved for rape offences, which are classed as “any acts of sexual penetration committed on someone with violence, coercion, threat or surprise”.
The new wording of the new offense states that “when the acts are committed on a minor of 15 or less”, surprise or coercion can be “characterised by the abuse of the victim’s vulnerability, who doesn’t have the necessary discernment to consent”.
But critics, of which there were many both in parliament and on social media channels, believe the new offense muddies the waters and is far less clear than setting a minimum age of consent.
They fear offenders will able to get away with a lighter sentence after committing an act of penetration on a minor if “surprise and coercion” cannot be proved.
MPs from all sides blasted the bill as “ambiguous” and ” disappointing” and one that “sends the wrong message to society”.
And on Monday a petition was published online titled “Rape is a crime” and has since gained 100,000 signatures.
The plan to introduce a strict minimum age was dropped due to concerns it would undermine the defendant's presumption of innocence and be unconstitutional.
Schiappa, who had previously said she was “very glad” that the government had chosen 15 as the age of consent, dismissed the anger at the U-turn and insisted the new bill would better protect minors.
The issue was brought to the fore after critics and lawmakers said French laws had allowed two men to escape rape charges when they were accused of sex with underage girls.
The new article is part of a package of laws aimed at curbing sexual violence and sexism.