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France Considers Setting Minimum Consent Age For Having Sex


Some people in France say it's time to set a minimum age for sexual consent. France has no minimum. And court cases involving older men preying on minors have prompted a demand for a clear legal framework. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.


FREDERIC POMMIER: (Speaking French).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Frederic Pommier, a commentator on France Inter Public Radio, is talking about recent court cases that have provoked widespread anger in the French media and public. In September, a man on trial for leading an 11-year-old into a public park and having sex with her was acquitted. The girl agreed to go on a walk with the man, the court said, so what followed was not rape. Pascal Cussigh is a lawyer with children's rights group Coup de Pouce Pour l’Enfance.

PASCAL CUSSIGH: (Through interpreter) Under current French law for rape, you must prove there was violence, surprise threat or constraint. And even for very young minors, you have to prove there was no consent, which is completely insane.

BEARDSLEY: A second case involving an 11-year-old victim has also attracted public concern. The adult defendant has not been charged with rape but with atteinte sexuelle, or sexual assault, which carries a far lighter sentence and is not even heard by a criminal court. Another very recent case saw a middle school teacher get an eight-month suspended sentence after having a relationship with his 13-year-old student. The light punishment reflects the fact that the union was deemed consensual by the court.

The girl's mother, Jennifer, whose last name was withheld, told French television BFM that her daughter has been devastated while her aggressor has gotten off.

JENNIFER: (Through interpreter) A 31-year-old man went to bed with a child, my child. I know her very well. She's fragile and easily influenced. She at first told the judge she was in love, and he didn't look any further to see if she'd been manipulated. Today she doesn't understand what happened to her.

MURIEL SALMONA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

SALMONA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: (Speaking French).

Muriel Salmona is a psychiatrist who works with victims of sexual violence. She says the public is just realizing that France has no minimum age of sexual consent. Salmona says children's advocates have been fighting for years to set one and no one has paid attention until now.

SALMONA: (Through interpreter) I think the fact that women are speaking out freely about sexual harassment and violence has helped raise consciousness. There is suddenly a deep realization of a lot of things that have been going on.

BEARDSLEY: President Emmanuel Macron said the fact that 11-year-olds could be judged consensual to a sexual act with an adult revealed a horrible ambiguity in the French penal code. Macron said a minimum age of sexual consent would be part of a new law against sexual violence to go into force early next year. Psychiatrist Salmona is hoping the age will be set at 15. But she says the important thing is to set a limit that can be used by the police and courts.

SALMONA: (Through interpreter) The effect of not having an age of consent has been catastrophic for victims. They are already traumatized and then we tell them you're partly responsible for what's happened to you. It's mental cruelty and an atrocious injustice.

BEARDSLEY: Salmona says once the law is in place, those who violate children will automatically be charged with the crime of rape. That will give victims a sense of justice, she says, and with that, a chance to rebuild their lives.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.