Sexual abuse

France shows willingness to finally set age of consent, at 15

A decade-long quest for justice by a woman alleging rape by a group of firefighters has triggered a wave of support and protests
A decade-long quest for justice by a woman alleging rape by a group of firefighters has triggered a wave of support and protests Christophe ARCHAMBAULT AFP/File

The French government says it is favourable to fixing the age of sexual consent at 15 and making it easier to punish child sexual abuse, after growing public pressure and a series of high-profile cases of incest, rape and sexual abuse.

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France’s lack of an age of consent, as well as time limits for pressing charges, have made it more difficult to prosecute alleged perpetrators of sexual violence and incest. Recent cases have included a prominent modelling agent, a predatory priest, a surgeon and a group of firefighters.

Describing such treatment of children “intolerable,” the Justice Ministry said “the government is determined to act quickly to implement the changes that our society expects”.

“An act of sexual penetration by an adult on a minor under 15 will be considered a rape,” Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said Tuesday on France-2 television. Perpetrators could no longer cite consent to diminish the charges, he said.

Exceptions would, however, be made for teenagers having consensual sex with the introduction of a minimum five-year age difference.

The government's statement of intention is seen as a major step forward.

“It’s very good that there is this revived debate, that there is an idea of a minimum age [of consent], said Fatima Benomar, whose group Les Effrontées has pushed for stronger laws against sexual abusers. “This will make adults more responsible.”

On Friday, Le Parisien daily published a petition signed by 160 French public figures demanding the age of sexual consent be fixed at 15 (not 13 as recently voted in the Senate) and 18 in cases of incest. 

#MeTooInceste

An effort to set France’s first age of consent three years ago in the wake of the global #MeToo movement failed following legal objections that it would compromise presumption of innocence.

But it has recently gained new momentum since accusations emerged last month of incestuous sexual abuse involving prominent French political expert, Olivier Duhamel. That led to an online #MeTooInceste movement in France that gathered tens of thousands of similar testimonies.

The Justice Ministry is in discussions with victims’ groups about toughening punishment of incestuous abuse and extending or abolishing the statute of limitations on sexual violence against children, because it creates such deep trauma that it can take decades for victims to speak out. The law currently allows child victims to file complaints until they are 48.

The ministry also says it wants “to ensure that victims of the same perpetrator do not receive different legal treatment,” which could broaden the scope to prosecute those accused of abusing multiple people over decades.

Legal time limits have hampered French authorities’ ability to investigate an influential cardinal, Philippe Barbarin, who was convicted then acquitted of covering up for a predatory priest; modelling agent Jean-Luc Brunel, an associate of disgraced late U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein, accused of an array of sex crimes; and surgeon Joel le Scouarnec, convicted after accusations he sexually abused more than 300 children over decades.

Justice for Julie

On Wednesday, France’s highest court considered a case involving a woman, Julie, who said 22 firefighters raped her when she was between the ages of 13 and 15. A lower court downgraded the charges to sexual assault, but her lawyers want them reclassified as rape.

Under current French law, sexual relations between an adult and a minor under 15 are criminalised. But the law allows for the possibility that someone under 15 is capable of consenting to sex, leading to cases where an adult is prosecuted for sexual assault (which carries a penalty of up to seven years) rather than rape (up to 20 years).

In the Duhamel case, the Paris prosecutor opened an investigation into alleged “rapes and sexual abuses by a person exercising authority” over a child following accusations in a book by his stepdaughter that he abused her twin brother in the 1980s, when the siblings were in their early teens.

Duhamel stepped down from his many professional positions saying he was “the target of personal attacks”.

The foundation manages the prestigious Sciences Po university in Paris, whose director Frederic Mion resigned this week amid the fallout from the affair.

 (with AP)

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