In the #MeToo Era, France Struggles With Sexual Crimes Involving Minors

Protests last year in Paris seeking changes to laws protecting minors in France.

PARIS — Having twice before run into an 11-year-old named Sarah in the neighborhood, the 28-year-old man chatted amiably with her and said he had something to show her at an apartment building nearby.

But once the elevator doors closed, she became afraid, she told the police and her lawyer, Carine Durrieu Diebolt. “He began to kiss her, his expression became nasty,” the lawyer said.

In the elevator, on the top floor of his building and finally in his apartment, Sarah told the police and her lawyer, he pressed her to have sex — first fellatio, then intercourse. As soon as she could get away, she called her mother in tears.

The question of whether the girl was raped is now going to be tried in a court in Pontoise, a distant suburb of Paris. But the case has set off a national furor, giving urgency to efforts by the government of President Emmanuel Macron to change laws protecting minors in France.

Under French law, it is illegal for an adult to have sexual contact with a minor under the age of 15. But the charge of sexual contact with a child is not the same as the charge of rape; it is a lesser crime with a lesser penalty.

In most Western countries, under so-called statutory rape laws, sex with a minor under a certain age is considered rape because the minor is thought to be too young to consent. France has no such law; all rape judgments must be based on proof of either violence, force, surprise or lack of choice in a situation.

But in the #MeToo era, prevailing attitudes around gender equality and harassment are being challenged in this country, which has a famously libertine disposition toward sex. Mr. Macron has made clear that the position of women in society is a priority and among the many areas of French life he wants to transform. He has pointedly included more women in the ranks of power.

So his government is proposing a law that would make it easier for girls and boys under 15 to prove that they had been raped. Still, government officials have hesitated over this complex issue and are facing criticism that the proposed change does not do enough.

“The victim will still have to prove that she did not consent,” said Edouard Durand, a juvenile court judge in Bobigny, a suburb of Paris.

“We could have gone further,” he added. “It’s a disappointment.”

The proposed law would make it possible for minors under 15 who have intercourse to prove that an adult took advantage of them, that they did not consent and that therefore they were raped. It would also extend the statute of limitations for bringing rape charges to 30 years from 20.

France’s law prohibiting adults from having sexual contact with minors under 15 carries penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of 75,000 euros, about $92,000. The new law would increase the penalty to 10 years in prison and a fine of 150,000 euros, about $184,000.

The legislation could be amended when it is debated in Parliament in mid-May.

The problems with how France prosecutes sexual violence involving minors go beyond the wording of any laws, jurists and legal experts say.

Rape charges can take as many as eight years or more to go to trial and are heard by juries, who tend to judge women and girls more harshly than do magistrates or judges who hear cases involving the lesser crimes of sexual contact and sexual assault.

And it is common to see the character of the girls or women (or in smaller numbers, boys) put on trial, rather than the actions of the men.

The result is that lawyers for rape victims who are minors often accept a lesser charge — like one of sexual contact or sexual assault that does not include rape — to avoid having the client further traumatized by having to testify before a jury and potentially seeing the attacker acquitted.

There is such frequent bias against the women and girls on the part of juries that convictions can be almost impossible, unless “you have a client who is as white as a goose,” said Ms. Durrieu Diebolt, the lawyer for Sarah, the 11-year-old in the Pontoise case. (The girl has been widely identified in the news media by the given name Sarah, but her full name has been withheld.)

From the start, many women say they face a lack of sympathy from the police. When a feminist organization calling itself Group F asked in an online survey for details of how the police treated complaints of sexual abuse, it got 500 responses in just the first three days. Women who reported rape said they were greeted with skepticism and rudeness and encouraged not to pursue their cases.

Another recent case that has also galvanized public opinion involved a 22-year-old man in Meaux, a town about 25 miles east of Paris, who left an 11-year-old girl pregnant after sex in a public park. She said the man had covered her mouth so that her protests could not be heard. The man denied the accusation and was acquitted.

Because so many cases are dropped or not pursued, it is difficult to determine the depths of the problem.

Of 4,120 complaints of rape made to the police by girls under 15, less than one in 10, or 396, were tried and resulted in sentences for rape, according to the National Observatory of Violence Done to Women.

The observatory, and a report by the French Senate, also note that among minors under 18, about 22 percent are assaulted sexually by a relative in an incestuous relationship or by a close friend. Cases involving incest can be particularly difficult for children to talk about, much less bring charges.

Sandrine Parise-Heideiger, the lawyer for the man accused of luring Sarah into the elevator in Pontoise and having sex with her, takes the view that sometimes a minor consents and then thinks the better of it, or sends mixed messages.

“The behavior of a 15-year-old adolescent five or 10 years ago, has moved,” she said, adding that now 10-year-olds behave like 15-year-olds.

“In 20 years of representing minors, I have seen a great deal of evolution in the physical development of young girls,” she added.

Many others disagree.

“One cannot think that a child can assent to a sexual act,” said Ernestine Ronai, a psychologist and former teacher.

Ms. Ronai is a member of the High Council on Equality Between Men and Women, a consultative body under the authority of the prime minister that provides an annual report on sexual violence and sexism in France. The government asked the group for recommendations of new standards for sex crime laws to keep minors safe.

The council wanted to make the new measure more like a statutory rape law, and set the age limit at 13, which would make it easier to include a presumption that there had been force and that a child was victimized.

The government chose 15 instead, which, while protecting more young people, makes it more difficult to prove any sex was non-consensual, experts said.

But the government argues that its new law better protects minors because it also more severely punishes the lesser crime of consensual sex.

“Our wish in doing this law is that the aggressor will be judged as a rapist, or that the judge can decide not to retain the rape charge, but in that case the adult will face a very high penalty of 10 years,” said Marlène Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality.

However, lawyers who represent minors worry that in many cases assailants may still be let off because they can argue that the child consented, and therefore that the sexual encounter did not amount to rape.

In the case of Sarah, the defense lawyer, Ms. Parise-Heideiger, said that if, as expected, the case goes before a jury, she will have no choice but to challenge the girl’s contention that the sex was not consensual.

She says that the girl’s own answers to police will help the defense’s argument. In her account, the girl said: “I was curious; I knew what he wanted.”

Since the girl is a minor, no interviews are now being given to reporters. But her lawyer, Ms. Durrieu Diebolt, said the girl was naïve, sexually inexperienced and entrapped by an older man who had done time in prison. The defense lawyer is trying to sully the girl’s reputation, she said.

“She was frozen, terrified,” when she talked to the police, said Ms. Durrieu Diebolt, who also faulted the police for interviewing the girl in long, intimidating sessions with complex questions.

“Here we have a victim who immediately afterward calls her mother,” Ms. Durrieu Diebolt said. “If she had consented, she would have hidden it from her mother, she would not have needed to talk to her.”

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