Activists wearing masks depicting President Emmanuel Macron urged France on Thursday to change its position and endorse a law proposed by the European Union that would define rape as sex without consent in the bloc's 27 countries.
The demonstrators gathered in downtown Paris on the eve of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to apply pressure on the French head of state.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, proposed legislation last year to make consent-based rape laws consistent across the bloc, and to introduce a common set of penalties.
While other details of the directive, which include a proposal for the criminalization of female genital mutilation and cyberbullying, seem to gather a consensus among the 27 member countries, the definition of rape based on the lack of consent is deeply divisive.
According to Human Rights Watch, only 13 EU member states use consent-based definitions to criminalize rape. Many others still require the use of force, or threat, to mete out punishment. France, for instance, considers that a rape can be considered to have occurred when “an act of sexual penetration or an oral-genital act is committed on a person, with violence, coercion, threat or surprise.”
“I'm here today because it infuriates me to see that our criminal law is not up to the task, that today it allows for rape to happen," said Sirine Sehil, a criminal law attorney. "It does not take into account our consent, our will, what we, as women, want.”
The Paris action, where a banner said “Only yes means yes,” was organized by groups including nonprofit organization Avaaz and the European Women Lobby, an umbrella group of women’s nongovernmental associations in Europe.
Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to French government officials urging them to agree to the consent-based definition and to take a leading role in negotiations.
“While we recognize that France aims to protect women’s rights and combat violence against women and girls, at present it regrettably remains in the company of member states including Poland and Hungary and lags behind member states such as Spain, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and Greece in amending its criminal law,” the letter says. “This is an opportunity for France to not only take the necessary steps toward meeting its own international human rights obligations, but to lead the entire EU forward in its fight to combat violence against women and girls.”
Some EU countries have also argued that the issue of rape is a matter of criminal law, and therefore falls within the competence of member countries, not the EU.
Many European lawmakers want the definition based on non-consensual sex to be adopted.
“It is the only way to guarantee that all EU countries put into their national law that sex without consent is rape, and that all European women are equally protected,” the Socialists and Democrats group said in a statement.
The pro-Europe Renew Europe group rued the deadlock within the Council of the European Union representing member countries, arguing that the inclusion of sex without consent in the law is crucial to set minimum rules for the offence.
“Without a harmonized definition of rape, this directive would be an empty vase,” said Lucia Duris Nicholsonova, a lawmaker from Slovakia. “We need a common approach across all member states. A woman raped cannot be considered only ‘oversensitive’ in one member state, while in the same case in another member state she would be considered a victim of a crime. We have to fight for all victims to have equal access to justice.”
Samuel Petrequin reported from Brussels.