French society has been reeling over revelations of high-profile child sexual abuse cases, some of which involved incest.
Among the responses has been that of Children and Families Minister Adrien Taquet and Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti, who want to create a new criminal offence around this.
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Grâce au travail des parlementaires et à la mobilisation des associations et des Français, dans les 3 mois, la loi évoluera :
Avant 15 ans, il ne sera plus question pour l'auteur d'invoquer un consentement. pic.twitter.com/5k0YJfgx2e
— Eric Dupond-Moretti (@E_DupondM) February 9, 2021
What is the law at present?
Unlike countries like the UK and USA which have offences of unlawful sexual intercourse or statutory rape, in France you cannot be convicted of rape based purely on age.
Many countries' legal codes specify that children below a certain age cannot legally give consent to sex, so having sex with a person below that age is automatically rape, with no need to prove force or coercion.
In France this is not the case, and a person having sex with a child can only be convicted of rape if prosecutors can prove violence, coercion, threat or surprise – the same criteria needed to prove rape of an adult victim.
Instead people having sex with children can be prosecuted for the lesser offence of having sex with a minor, which carries much lighter penalties than rape – six months to five years in jail as opposed to the 20-year jail term that is the maximum for offences of rape.
What is the proposed change?
Taquet's proposed bill, after a consultation, would make any sexual penetration of a person under the age of 15 a crime, without the need to prove coercion or violence.
This is a looser definition than many countries have, as prosecutors would need to prove that penetration took place, rather than non-penetrative sexual activity.
The proposed bill also includes the necessity of an age gap of at least five years, in order not to criminalise sexual relationships between teenagers where one is older than 15 and the other is not.
This bill is at the proposal stage, so still needs to pass through several hurdles including debates on both houses of parliament before it can become law.
It's 2021, how is this law not already in force?
There have been previous attempts to set a formal age for lawful sexual intercourse in France, including a bill brought by the former equalities minister Marlène Schiappa in 2018. The bill, part of a package of measures on sexual violence, originally included a provision that all sex with a person below the age of 15 would be classified as rape.
However by the time the bill came before parliament this had been watered down and included only the provision of a new offence of 'sexual penetration of a person under the age of 15' which carried a lesser penalty than rape.
The bill was brought after two cases where men escaped prosecution for rape after having sex with girls aged 11 and the dropping of the bill sparked widespread anger around France.
Is this a major problem in France?
There's no reason to think that France has more of a problem with child sexual abuse than any other country, but several recent high-profile cases have broken through a long-standing culture of silence around child abuse.
Two recent books have helped spark debate – one written by Vanessa Springora describing her abuse while a teenager at the hands of prize-winning writer Gabriel Matzneff and the other by Camille Kouchner alleging incestuous sexual abuse of her twin brother by high-profile political commentator Olivier Duhamel.
In both cases, the women say that the abuse was known about in the intellectual and social circles in which the men moved. Shortly after Kouchner's book came out, the intellectual Alain Finkielkraut, interviewed about the case on TV, mused about the 'consent' and 'reciprocity' between the teenage boy and his stepfather.
His comments drew an angry response from, among many others, Taquet, who tweeted: “In what world do you live Alain Finkielkraut? Are you really talking about consent between a teenager and a family member? You maintain the silence and the feelings of guilt of the child by suggesting that some form of reciprocity is possible.”