Is a 13-year-old old enough to agree to sex with an adult? That's a question France is asking as the government prepares to set a legal age for sexual consent for the first time.
Twice in recent weeks, French courts have refused to prosecute men for rape after they had sex with 11-year-old girls because authorities couldn't prove coercion. Amid the public disbelief over the situation, the French government is drafting a bill to say that sex with children under a certain age is by definition coercive.
Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet provoked consternation among feminist groups on Monday by saying a legal minimum age of 13 for sexual consent "is worth considering."
Activists staged a small protest yesterday in central Paris to argue that the age of consent should be set at 15. Protesters waved placards that read "for him impunity, for her a life sentence" in reference to the recent cases.
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"We want the law to guarantee that before 15 there can be no concept of consent," prominent French feminist activist Caroline de Haas said.
"I don't know why (Belloubet) said it," added Alice Collet, a member of the National Collective for Women's Rights. "It's a sign of ignorance of the issues."
Establishing a legal age of consent is one piece of a pending bill to address sexual violence and harassment in France. The subject of sexual misconduct has drawn fresh attention worldwide since rape and sexual assault allegations were made against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.
"In America with the Weinstein fallout, there have been legal investigations. But here it has been radio silence from politicians," said de Haas.
French women have increasingly been speaking out online and to police in recent weeks about past abuse, but no high-profile men in France have lost their jobs or suffered reputational damage so far.
A report yesterday night in the newspaper Liberation detailed allegations by eight women accusing the former head of the Socialist Party's youth movement of serial harassment in 2010-2014. The alleged perpetrator, Thierry Marchal-Beck, is quoted as saying that he was "stupefied" by the accusations and threatened possible legal action. It may be too late for the women to press charges under French law.