French lawmakers gave final approval on Thursday to legislation setting the minimum age of sexual consent at 15, following a wave of allegations of sexual abuse and incest described as France’s second #MeToo movement.
In a second reading of the bill, members of the lower house of parliament voted unanimously to bring France’s consent laws in line with most other Western countries.
Under the legislation, sex with children under 15 is considered rape, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, unless there is a small age gap between the two partners.
The bill also makes it illegal for an adult to have sex with a relative aged under 18.
Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti said the vote sent a clear message: “Children are off-limits.”
Under current French law, prosecutors had to prove that a minor was forced, threatened or tricked into having sex with an adult in order to bring charges of rape or sexual assault.
The draft law was initiated by members of the Senate, who had suggested the age of consent be set at 13, which would have been one of the lowest in Europe.
But President Emmanuel Macron’s government pushed for it to be set higher.
The bill does allow for sex between a teen and a young adult up to five years older – a gap criticised by some MPs as too large but which Dupond-Moretti defended, saying he did not want “to put a youngster aged 18 on trial because he had consensual sex with a girl aged fourteen and a half.”
The legislation also cracks down on online paedophilia, with any person caught trying to groom children aged under 15 for sexual acts over the internet facing up to 10 years in prison and a fine of €150,000 ($180,000).
The issue of consent has repeatedly come up for debate since 2018 when it emerged that a 28-year-old man, who had sex with an 11-year-old girl he met in a park, had initially been charged with a lesser sexual offence, not rape.
The case caused a public outcry in France, where sex between adults and minors has previously often been shrugged off as harmless in cases where the encounter was presented as consensual, usually by the adult.
Thursday’s vote comes on the heels of an incest scandal that has brought down one of France’s most prominent intellectuals after he was accused of sexually abusing his stepson.
Olivier Duhamel, a former head of France’s top political science institute and a regular pundit on French television, had been accused by his daughter-in-law Camille Kouchner of abusing her twin brother when they were in their early teens.
Duhamel confessed to the allegations on Tuesday in an interview with a special police unit that investigates crimes committed against minors, sources close to the inquiry told AFP.