Due to the impact of a series of scandals, the French National Assembly was pushed by lawmakers to bring the French criminal code closer to that of other Western countries by reinforcing its legal arsenal against sexual abuse of minors.
What is considered rape in France?
As most European countries, France uses “coercion-based” laws regarding rape and sexual assault. In French law, rape is defined by sexual penetration through “violence, constraint, threat or surprise” with the burden of proof being the same for minors and adult victims. This legal system differs from “consent-based” legislation identifiable in countries like Germany, Belgium, the U.K., Greece and the U.S, or “statutory rape” meaning sexual intercourse with a minor under a certain age, whatever the circumstance. Under the current law, prosecutors have to prove that a minor was forced, threatened or tricked into having sex with an adult so as to carry out charges of rape or sexual assault.
What would the potential bill change?
Though the current text of the bill would not change France’s coercion-based legislation, any “act of sexual penetration (…)” done by someone above the age of a majority on a minor under 15 would now be considered rape, something that creates an age of consent at 15 that can be raised at 18 in cases of incest. This means that under the bill, sex with children under 15 would be considered rape, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, unless there is a relatively small age gap between the two partners. President Macron’s government, however, pushed for the legal consent age to be set higher.
Moreover, although Dupond-Moretti, French Minister of Justice, claimed that he does not wish to “put a youngster aged 18 on trial because he had consensual sex with a girl aged fourteen and a half”, the bill (the provision named “Romeo and Julliet” due to the large age gap) states that a five-year gap is required for conviction. If someone is suspected of having raped multiple minors, the statute of limitations is extended to 30 years after the last suspected offence.
The new legislation also includes information concerning online pedophelia: anyone caught attempting to groom children under the age of 15 for sexual acts over the internet, will be facing up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 150,000 euros.
The bill, which was subject of around 300 amendments in the lower house National Assembly, has been returned to the Senate for a final vote.
What triggered change?
Members of the lower house of parliament voted unanimously to upgrade France’s consent laws following a wave of allegations of sexual abuse, unveiled in France’s second #MeToo movement. Precisely, the issue of consent has been repeatedly brought to light and come up for debate since the case of “Julie” emerged, a woman allegedly raped by 20 Parisian firefighters of the Bourg-la-Reine fire station, when she was between 13 and 15 years old. Campaigners hope that her case will lead to an age of sexual consent being enshrined in law as it is in the rest of the European Union
Information on the case:
-Pierre, a firefighter, assisted Julie during a severe anxiety seizure in early 2008, when she was just 13.
-After getting her phone number from her medical file, in which her age was recorded, he bombarded her with “affectionate messages” and requested her to undress via webcam.
-When Julie complied, he passed her number to other firefighters who demanded the same.
-Simultaneously, he continuously called at her house to inquire after her health. Julie’s mother, Corinne Leriche, told investigators that she was “grateful that they looked after Julie when she was ill”.
-After Julie got off her medication at the age of twenty, she confided in her mother. This led to prevailling rape charges against 20 firefighters. The young girl even testified that one of the men raped her during his visit at the psychiatric hospital she was held.
-Since the allegations surfaced, only three men have been investigated as the judge trusted that the rest were unaware of her age. However, those questioned maintained the claim that Julie agreed to a sexual relationship with them.
-In 2019, after multiple years of court, the case was transferred from jury trial to criminal court. The judge mentioned that there was no proof of rape so the charges changed from rape to sexual assault. This means that the maximum sentence is that of 20 years whereas the minimum is that of 7 years.