A French court has ruled a 29-year-old man who had sex with an 11-year-old girl must face rape charges, after prosecutors initially said the sex was consensual.
Authorities in September charged the father-of-two with sexual abuse of a minor under 15, which carries a penalty of up to five years, instead of rape of a minor, punishable by up to 20 years.
But on Tuesday the presiding judge in Pointoise, near Paris, ruled the man faced the wrong charge, and postponed the the trial, in what the defence called “a victory for victims”.
France does not have a legal age under which a minor cannot agree to a sexual relationship, although the country’s top court has ruled children aged five and under cannot consent.
Defence lawyers say the man met the girl in a park and the girl voluntarily followed him to an apartment and consented to sex. They also say their client, then 28, thought she was over 15.
The girl’s family filed a complaint for rape in the town of Montmagny, but prosecutors apparently believed the suspect did not use violence or coercion. French law defines rape as sexual penetration committed “by violence, coercion, threat or surprise.”
“She was 11 years and 10 months old, so nearly 12 years old. It changes the story,” defence lawyer Marc Goudarzian said on Tuesday. “So she is not a child.”
His colleague Sandrine Parise-Heideiger, said, “we are not dealing with a sexual predator on a poor little faultless goose”.
She said as soon as children have “sexual expressiveness and you have an attitude of putting yourself in danger” then “it doesn’t necessarily mean the person on the other side is a sexual predator”.
But Carine Diebolt, the lawyer for the family, asked the court on Tuesday to re-characterise the charge from sexual abuse to rape.
Armelle Le Bigot Macaux, president of the COFRADE, an umbrella group for children’s rights, said the suspect “knew very well she was a young child”.
“This young child isn’t protected today by our French society,” she added.
The presiding judge said the prosecutor chose to press the wrong charge and ordered the case to be sent back to investigators for a thorough investigation. As a result, the trial was postponed.
“It’s a victory,” Ms Diebolt told reporters after the trial. “The main thing is that [the girl] can at last be heard as a victim of rape ... we can say it’s a victory for the victims.”
Mr Goudarzian, the defence lawyer, claimed the court decision was a result of the wide publicity given to the case.
The Montmagny case is one of several that have prompted an uproar over France’s rules on child sex abusers.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s government has proposed a bill to introduce a minimum legal age for sexual consent for the first time, which includes a provision saying that sex with children under a certain age is by definition coercive.
The proposed minimum age has not yet been decided, but the cutoff could be between 13 and 15. The bill, a broad-based measure aimed at fighting “sexual and sexist violence”, is expected to be presented to the French Cabinet next month.
A similar recent case caused outrage. A French criminal court in November acquitted a 30-year-old man accused of raping an 11-year-old girl in 2009. The jury in the Paris suburban region of Seine-et-Marne found he did not use violence or coercion.
Associated Press contributed to this report
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