France’s lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, on Thursday unanimously adopted a bill to protect minors from sexual crimes and incest.
The bill primarily sets the age of sexual consent at 15 and outlaws incestual relations—understood in France as sexual abuse by relatives—with a minor as rape. The provision outlawing incest as rape will also apply to a sexual relationship between a minor and their stepparents.
It will now be punishable by up to 20 years in prison for an adult to have sex with a child aged under 15. While the existing law outlawed sex with a child under 15, for prosecuting as rape it relied on the consent of such child. It required proof that “force, threat, violence or surprise” had been used, irrespective of the victim’s age. Without such proof, such an act was prosecuted as the lesser offense of sexual assault.
The adoption of the bill brings France in line with a majority of Western countries. In a tweet, Minister of Justice Éric Dupond-Moretti called the adoption of the bill a “historic step.”
As an exception, a “Romeo and Juliet” clause will protect consensual sexual relations between partners with an age gap of up to five years. This clause was added as some lawmakers had expressed concerns that a blanket law could lead to consensual sexual relationships between children under 15 and persons a few years older than them being criminalized. However, some lawmakers had opposed the clause, considering a five-year age gap too wide.
The bill also penalizes persons who incite children under 15 to commit sexual acts over the internet by up to 10 years in prison and a fine of 150,000 euros (approximately US$180,000).
In 2018, France outlawed street harassment and started levying fines on offenders. In the same year, the country also extended the statute of limitations for rape against a minor from 20 to 30 years. However, lawmakers had voted against a bill similar to that adopted Thursday.
The bill has now been adopted by both houses of parliament.