A 29-year-old man is set to appear in a French court Tuesday for having sex with an 11-year-old girl last year, in a trial that has rekindled debate on the age of sexual consent in France.
In a decision that shocked many, the prosecutor’s office in the Paris suburb of Pontoise decided to send the man to trial on charges of “sexual abuse of a minor under 15 years old,” and not rape.
If convicted of sexual abuse, the suspect faces up to five years in prison. Rape of a minor under 15 is punishable with up to 20 years in prison.
The case is the latest of several that prompted an uproar over France’s rules on child sex abusers, considered too lax by child rights and feminist groups.
The cases led French President Emmanuel Macron’s government to propose a bill that would introduce a minimum legal age for sexual consent for the first time, and include a provision saying that sex with children under a certain age is by definition coercive.
The minimum age hasn’t yet been decided on, but the cutoff could be between the ages of 13 and 15. The bill, a broad-based measure aimed at fighting “sexual and sexist violence,” is expected to be presented to the French Cabinet next month.
In the case to be heard in Pontoise on Tuesday, the girl’s family filed a complaint for rape after the incident in April in the town of Montmagny, in the suburban Val-d’Oise region.
But the prosecution considered that the suspect did not use violence or coercion. French law defines rape as any act of sexual penetration committed “by violence, coercion, threat or surprise.”
Defense lawyers have said the man and the girl met in a small park and that the girl voluntarily followed the man into an apartment block and freely consented to have sex with him. They’ve also claimed that their client, then aged 28, thought the girl was over 15. The girl is now 12.
A lawyer for the girl’s family has said she was too young and confused to resist. Lawyers for the family are expected to ask the court to re-characterize the charge from sexual abuse into rape. If the presiding judge grants their request, the case may be sent back to investigators and the trial postponed to a later date.
A similar recent case caused disbelief and outrage. A French criminal court in November acquitted a 30-year-old man who was accused of raping an 11-year-old girl in 2009. The jury in the Paris suburban region of Seine-et-Marne found that the man didn’t use violence or coercion.
The subject of sexual misconduct has drawn fresh attention in France and worldwide since rape and sexual assault allegations were made against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.