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Is it true that France has no age of consent for sex?

As France faces up to several high profile cases of child sexual abuse, there are calls to change the law in this area. But is it true that there is no official age of consent in France?

Is it true that France has no age of consent for sex?
Campaigners in France have long called for an overhaul of the law. Photo: AFP

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.

 

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.”

    

 

Member comments

  1. As mentioned in this article, in the UK, a person who has sex with a minor is automatically accused as rape. And that is how it should be. Even if the minor says that they wanted to have sex, it is forbidden.
    I’m absolutely appalled that France accepts that sex with a minor may be considered consensual. It’s absolutely shocking and I hope this law changes asap.

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JOHN LICHFIELD

OPINION: France has two presidents – one is confident, the other weak and directionless

France has two Emmanuel Macrons: one is strangely depressed and directionless, the other confident and clear, writes John Lichfield. But which one will emerge in his second term as president?

OPINION: France has two presidents - one is confident, the other weak and directionless

There is a global Emmanuel Macron, confident and clear; and then there is a domestic Emmanuel Macron, who sometimes appears petulant and indecisive.

Global Macron is admired by many people outside France for his eloquence and his intelligence. He is also mocked and feared by some people abroad (especially in the Brexit camp in Britain) for his alleged pretentiousness and arrogance (in other words for his eloquence and intelligence).

For Global Macron, it has been a good couple of weeks. 

His speech to the United Nations General Assembly this week was the best given by any world leader.

He placed the Ukraine war in a sweeping, global and historical context, lambasting allegedly “neutral” countries for failing to stand up for the core UN principles of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The “fake” non-aligned countries were, he said, betraying not just the values of the UN but their own interests.

Macron has also been word perfect in his tributes to the Queen.

He obtained little credit for that fact from the hardest-line,  professional Macron-haters in the UK media. They preferred to concentrate on the fact that he wore posh trainers during an informal visit last weekend to the enormous queues of people waiting to file past Her Majesty’s coffin in Westminster.

King Charles has, however, seized on this opportunity to improve relations between France and Britain which Liz Truss had ignored. After a dinner with Macron in London last Sunday, the new king is reliably reported to have decided that his first state visit next year should be to France.

So much for the global Macron.

The other Macron, the domestic president, is newly re-elected but strangely weak and directionless.

His popularity in opinion polls is fading. He seems unable to come to terms with his loss of his parliamentary majority in the legislative elections in June. He has yet to give a clear road-map for his second term to his newly renamed Renaissance party and their centrist allies.

(REMEMBER: You can listen to John Lichfield discuss the crisis on the French left and the mixed fortunes of Emmanuel Macron in the latest episode of our Talking France podcast below)

He has alternated in recent weeks between Blood, Sweat and Tears warnings to the French people that they face a cold and difficult winter and a generous (but reluctant) decision to extend domestic energy subsidies for another full year.

He has alarmed some of his own allies by raising the possibility that he might use his emergency constitutional powers to push pension reform through a divided National Assembly.

At the same time, he has pressed ahead with his vague plan for a grandiloquently-named Conseil national de la Refondation (National refoundation council). This body is supposed to find common ground between Left and Right, unions and bosses, to “refound” the French welfare state created just after the 1939-45 war.

On the one hand,  Macron says that he wants to find a new social consensus for the 21st century. On the other hand, he says that he wants to charge, without negotiation, into the social and political minefield of pension reform.

In a briefing with journalists earlier this month, the President suggested that he could avoid a lengthy negotiation with unions and the parliament to increase the standard French retirement age (now in theory 62). Changes in system could be tacked onto the annual social security budget next month and then pushed through the Assembly, in effect, by decree.

This week, the government back-pedalled. No decision has yet been taken, they say. One of Macron’s principal allies, the veteran centrist leader, François Bayrou, warned that any attempt to impose such a transformation on French lives by force would be a calamity.

How can we explain the two Macrons?

Partly, they reflect the constitutional powers given to French presidents. On international affairs and European affair, Macron can go largely his own way. On domestic policy, if he has no majority in parliament, his powers are limited.

I believe, however, that the problem runs deeper. There have been reports for months that Macron suffered after his re-election in April from a “drop in energy” or a period of depression.

The second half of his first term had been brutally occupied with non-stop management of the Covid and Ukraine crises. His attempts at mediating with Vladimir Putin had been a discouraging failure.

After his victory over Marine Le Pen, Macron drifted for weeks, delaying his decisions on a new Prime Minister and a new government. He was strangely absent from the parliamentary campaign in June (well below the limits imposed by his position as head of state).

Macron’s distraction contributed to his failure to win a new parliamentary majority; his lack of a majority has, I believe, compounded his mood of indecision and depression.

What to do with five years of a second term? Should he accept that his only role is now crisis-management? After all there are crises enough to manage.

Is the career of the self-proclaimed revolutionary of 2017 finished at the age of 44?  He cannot run again in 2027. He faces the prospect of five years of managerialism and drift while attention switches to his possible successors, from Edouard Philippe in the centre to Marine Le Pen on the Far Right.

“Macron is a magician who has lost his wand,” says one pro-Macron parliamentarian. “He’s still searching  for a way forward, a sense of direction. In short, he has the blues.”

By comparison with French politics, international crises are simple. Macron has clear ideas about the place of France and Europe in the world. He can express himself, both off the cuff and in set-piece speeches, with elegance and intelligence.

Macron has had no other position in elected politics than President of the Republic. He has no background as local or parliamentary politician. The prospect of five years of grinding negotiation to achieve quarter-baked reforms is, I believe, appalling to him.

Hence, his domestic zig-zagging.

He faces three choices in the next few months. He can accept a role as a manager of crises and minimal reforms; he can risk a Yellow Vest-type revolt by using, maybe abusing, his limited constitutional powers to impose change.

Or he can hope for an opportunity in the first half of next year to call a new parliamentary election.

Which way will he go? I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, does Emmanuel Macron.

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