France mulls introducing consent age as sex abuse claims pile up

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
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Paris (AFP)

The French government has backed the introduction of a minimum age of sexual consentFrance mulls introducing consent age as sex abuse claims pile up, a move that would bring it in line with most other Western countries, following years of campaigning by abuse victims.

The push for a change in the law has been given extra impetus by allegations brought by a woman who claims she was raped by more than 20 firefighters when she was a teenager, with a ruling in the long-running case expected later on Wednesday.

Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said on Tuesday that the government was "favourable that a new crime be established, whereby any act of sexual penetration by an adult involving a minor aged 15 is a crime".

His proposal goes further than a bill drafted by members of the Senate, which calls for the age of consent to be set at 13.

Speaking to France 2 television the minister said public opinion had shifted on the issue of sex between adults and minors, long shrugged off in France as harmless in cases where the relations were presented as consensual.

Dupond-Moretti said the current requirement for underage victims to prove they were forced, threatened or duped into sex in order to bring charges of rape or sexual assault should be scrapped.

His office said in a statement that the minister wanted to ensure "equal treatment of all underage victims" in the eyes of the law.

"We are cracking open this sort of ideological leaden weight which prevent victims' voices from being heard," he said.

- Proving lack of consent -

Judges are due to rule on Wednesday on a long-running case brought by a woman known only as Julie (not her real name), who claims she was attacked during 2008 and 2010, when she was repeatedly hospitalised for severe anxiety attacks.

Each time she was taken to hospital required the intervention of the ambulance service, which is staffed by firefighters.

Three firefighters were initially charged with gang rape but the charges were later downgraded to sexual violation under a law that makes it an offence -- but not a crime -- for someone in a position of authority to have sex with a minor.

To prove rape, victims in France must prove they were forced into sex even if they were underage.

The firefighters insist Julie consented to sex but her family say she was extremely vulnerable and incapable of granting consent. She herself has insisted she never expressly consented to sex.

On Wednesday, France's top court will rule on her appeal against the downgrading of the charges.

- 'Free to speak' -

Julie's decade-long quest for justice has triggered a wave of support from feminists, hundreds of whom have staged protests outside courthouses to press for a change to the law on sexual consent.

While backing their calls, Dupond-Moretti said complainants would still need to prove that their attackers knew their age and that exceptions should be made for sexual relations between youngsters close in age.

The issue of child sexual abuse exploded on to the front pages in France last month after the daughter of former foreign minister Bernard Kouchner published a book accusing her step-father, prominent political commentator Olivier Duhamel, of having abused her twin brother as a child.

The revelations triggered an outpouring of accounts of sexual abuse within families on social media, similar to the #metoo wave of stories of sexual harassment and abuse unleashed by the case against US movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017.

President Emmanuel Macron has called for changes to the law to better protect victims of child sexual abuse.

Shame was "switching sides" from victims to perpetrators, he said in a video posted to Twitter, welcoming the fact that "people feel free to speak everywhere in France".

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