On April 24, 2017, a 28-year-old-man met an 11-year-old girl in a park in Montmagny, just north of Paris, after which, he took her home where he had oral and vaginal sex with her. When it was over, the girl called her mother and described what had happened, and her mother called the police. “She thought … that she didn’t have the right to protest, that it wouldn’t make any difference,” the mother told Mediapart, a French investigative site which first reported on the allegations of the case. The accusations were of an adult raping a child—a crime that, in France, can lead to a 20-year prison sentence for the perpetrator when the victim is 15 or younger.
But it initially wasn’t charged that way. When the case first went to court in September, the man faced only charges of “sexual infraction,” a crime punishable with a maximum of five years in jail and a €75,000 fine. Under French law, a charge of rape requires “violence, coercion, threat, or surprise,” even if the victims are as young as the girl in the Montmagny case. When the case, initially postponed, went back to court in February, the man’s attorneys did not deny the sexual encounter but argued that the girl had been capable of consenting. “She was 11 years and 10 months old, so nearly 12 years old,” defense lawyer Marc Goudarzian said. Sandrine Parise-Heideiger, his fellow defense lawyer, added: “We are not dealing with a sexual predator on a poor little faultless goose.”
Such a defense flies in the face of legal and cultural consensus in most Western nations, and much of the world. “With children there is inevitably coercion,” Ernestine Ronai, co-president of the gender-based violence commission at the government’s High Council for Equality between Women and Men, told me. “It is indefensible that a girl of 11 could be considered consenting with a 28-year-old man. This is shocking,” she added.
Indeed, the judge did ultimately order that rape charges be filed, in what Carine Durrieu-Diebolt, the attorney for the girl and her family, called a “victory for victims.” The case has been postponed to allow for a more thorough investigation into the allegations. But in the meantime, it has also provoked an unprecedented backlash that has resulted in France considering a change to a longstanding, anomalous feature of its laws: Up to now, there has been no legal age of consent for sex.
Under French law, “rape” is defined as “any act of sexual penetration, of whatever nature, committed on the person of another by violence, coercion, threat or surprise.” Yet unlike elsewhere, there is no presumption of coercion if a sexual minor is involved. Most other countries in Europe, including Spain, Belgium, Britain, Switzerland, Denmark and Austria, have a legal age of consent. Most of the age minimums range between 14 and 16 years of age. Fixing a specific age of consent means that children and adolescents below that age cannot, regardless of circumstances, be considered consenting to sex; their very age renders them incapable. As a result, an adult in most European nations who has sex with someone under this age would be charged with rape, even if violent force is not used.