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France to set age of consent, adapt rape laws

by ANGELA CHARLTON THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | February 11, 2021 at 3:45 a.m.
FILE - In this Jan.19, 2021 file photo, signs on the wall reads "Duhamel, and the others, you will never be in peace" referring to Olivier Duhamel, head of the National Foundation of Political Sciences, which oversees the prestigious Sciences Po university, and at left "Mion Resignation" refers to Frederic Mion, head of Sciences Po university, in Paris. France's government wants to set the age of sexual consent at 15 and make it easier to punish long-ago child sexual abuse, amid growing public pressure and a wave of online testimonies about rape and other sexual violence by parents and authority figures. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

PARIS -- France's government wants to set the age of sexual consent at 15 and make it easier to punish long-ago child sexual abuse, as public pressure grows and a wave of online testimonies about rape and other sexual violence surfaces.

Victims and child protection activists have long pushed for tougher laws and greater societal recognition of the problem.

France's lack of an age of consent -- along with statutes of limitations -- have complicated efforts to prosecute alleged perpetrators, including a prominent modeling agent, a predatory priest, a surgeon and a group of firefighters.

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, though exceptions would be made for teenagers having consensual sex.

"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 Effrontees has pushed for stronger laws against sexual abusers. "This will make adults more responsible."

An effort to set France's first age of consent three years ago in the wake of the global #MeToo movement failed because of legal complications. But it has gained new momentum since accusations emerged last month of incestuous sexual abuse involving a prominent French political expert, Olivier Duhamel. The accusations unleashed an online #MeTooInceste movement in France that led to 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. 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 numerous people over decades.

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

One of Brunel's accuser's, former model Thysia Huisman, welcomed the proposed reform, even though it's too late for her to seek justice for the rape she says she suffered as a teenager.

"It feels empowering, and that's really important," she said.

Huisman came forward and testified to police in hopes of eliciting change and encouraging other victims to speak out. "It's really important to me, as a victim, a survivor, that we came forward as a group," she said.

France's highest court considered a case Wednesday involving a woman who said a number of 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 banned. Yet the law accepts the possibility that someone under 15 is capable of consenting to sex, leading to cases where an adult is prosecuted for sexual assault instead of rape.

Information for this article was contributed by John Leicester and Sylvie Corbet of The Associated Press.

FILE - In this May 28, 2013 file photo, head of the prestigious Sciences Po university Frederic Mion stands in front of the main entrance in Paris. Frederic Mion resigned this week after accusations emerged last month of incestuous sexual abuse involving a prominent French political expert, Olivier Duhamel who was the head of National Foundation of Political Sciences. France's government wants to set the age of sexual consent at 15 and make it easier to punish long-ago child sexual abuse, amid growing public pressure and a wave of online testimonies about rape and other sexual violence by parents and authority figures. (AP Photo/Charles Platiau, Pool, File)
FILE - In this May 28, 2013 file photo, head of the prestigious Sciences Po university Frederic Mion stands in front of the main entrance in Paris. Frederic Mion resigned this week after accusations emerged last month of incestuous sexual abuse involving a prominent French political expert, Olivier Duhamel who was the head of National Foundation of Political Sciences. France's government wants to set the age of sexual consent at 15 and make it easier to punish long-ago child sexual abuse, amid growing public pressure and a wave of online testimonies about rape and other sexual violence by parents and authority figures. (AP Photo/Charles Platiau, Pool, File)
FILE - In this June 6, 2013 file photo, Sciences Po President Frederic Mion grimaces in Paris. Frederic Mion resigned this week after accusations emerged last month of incestuous sexual abuse involving a prominent French political expert, Olivier Duhamel who was the head of National Foundation of Political Sciences. France's government wants to set the age of sexual consent at 15 and make it easier to punish long-ago child sexual abuse, amid growing public pressure and a wave of online testimonies about rape and other sexual violence by parents and authority figures. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File)
FILE - In this June 6, 2013 file photo, Sciences Po President Frederic Mion grimaces in Paris. Frederic Mion resigned this week after accusations emerged last month of incestuous sexual abuse involving a prominent French political expert, Olivier Duhamel who was the head of National Foundation of Political Sciences. France's government wants to set the age of sexual consent at 15 and make it easier to punish long-ago child sexual abuse, amid growing public pressure and a wave of online testimonies about rape and other sexual violence by parents and authority figures. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon, File)
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