PARIS — France's lower house of parliament voted Wednesday to toughen laws on the rape of children but stopped short of setting a legal age of sexual consent.
During a heated debate ending in the early hours of the morning, lawmakers decided against creating what would have been France's first law on a legal age below which a minor cannot agree to a sexual relationshipwith an adult— the proposal was 15.
Instead, they approved a clause in which relationsbetween an adult and a minor under 15could be classified as rape if "the victim lacks the ability to consent".
The government says the proposed law aims at better protecting children, after two recent cases prompted outrage on the topic. French courts refused to prosecute men for rape after they had sex with 11-year-old girls because authorities couldn't prove coercion.
Under the proposed law, judges could rule that rape results from an "abuse of vulnerability" of the victim.
The bill bans sex between an adult and a minor under 15 but accepts the possibility that a minor under 15 is capable of consenting to sex. In such cases, it would be classified a "sexual assault" and the maximum prison sentence for that is doubled to 10 years.
Rape of children under 15 is punishable by 20 years in prison.
But women's rights groups — who pushed for a firm age limit — have reacted angrily. They fear the new law will tend to encourage judges to classify abuses as sexual assaults rather than rapes.
France's highest administrative court, the Council of State, warned the government that setting a firm legal age of consent could be seen as violating an adult's presumption of innocence and would be therefore declared unconstitutional.
The government then decided to change the text to allow judges to take into account the children's vulnerability.
Justice minister Nicole Belloubet said Wednesday on Europe 1 she disagrees with critics. "We tighten the rules so that the rape can be more easily proven," she insisted on Europe 1 radio.
The bill now goes to the Senate for approval.