A proposed legal bill would set down a clear age of consent for minors after a shocking case in which a rape charge was dropped when a court decided an 11-year-old girl had consented to sex with a man more than twice her age.
It will also give traumatised child victims more time to come forward to bring criminal charges against their attackers.
The announcement on Monday from the French equality minister, Marlène Schiappa, could hardly have come at a more appropriate time, with scores of French women coming forward to detail incidents of harassment and assault following the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
A Twitter appeal by the radio journalist Sandra Muller using #balancetonporc(squeal on your pig), encouraging women to publicly shame their attackers, was top of the French Twitter trend list over the weekend. A second international campaign #MeToo is now trending in France.
On Monday, Schiappa launched a pre-debate “citizens’ consultation” over the legislation, including the possibility of police warnings for everyday sexist acts such as wolf whistling and comments about physical appearance in the street.
“The point is that the whole of society has to redefine what it will accept and what it will not,” Schiappa told La Croix, a Catholic newspaper.
The minister pointed out that there are 84,000 rapes and 220,000 sexual assaults in France each year, and one woman is killed by a violent partner in the country every three days.
“We want to reduce those statistics for violence … All sexually motivated violence must be taken into account, including male sexual violence against small boys and disabled people. On this, we have to address another taboo,” she said.
“Voices are being heard, in France as in other parts of the world. Society is ready to reject this violence. There is a desire to act.”
Police, magistrates, psychiatrists, and education and legal experts are also being solicited for their opinions, and a parliamentary commission is to study the question of harassment in public places. The information will be collated at the end of the year and a draft bill presented to the Assemblée Nationale in the first half of 2018.
“I think, personally, that whistling at a women in the street is not harassment, but it’s the case when you follow her on to the subway. In this case, the stress, even intimidation, is evident,” Schiappa said.
A key pillar of the legislation would be an increase in the time limit for cases of sexual abuse on minors from 20 to 30 years from them reaching adulthood at 18.
Last year, Flavie Flament, a French broadcast journalist, alleged that she was raped by the British-born photographer David Hamilton 30 years previously, when she was 13. Flament said it had taken three decades for her to deal with the attack, but she was unable to bring charges because of the legal time limit. Hamilton was found dead in his Paris home having apparently killed himself after three other women made similar claims.
The law would also define an age of consent for minors. The French high commission for male/female equality has suggested it be set at 13 years. Others, including Laurence Rossignol, a former family minister in the Socialist administration, are pressing for 15 years.
The issue became a political priority last month following national outrage after a court reduced a charge against a 28-year-old man from rape to sexual assault because it decided the 11-year-old victim had suffered “no violence, no constraint, no threat, no surprise”, and could be deemed to have consented.