(BBC) – France plans to fix the legal age of sexual consent at 15, meaning sex with someone younger than that would be considered rape.
Equality Minister Marlène Schiappa welcomed the move, which follows advice from doctors and legal experts.
Currently, prosecutors must prove sex with someone under 15 was forced in order to bring rape charges.
The change comes amid uproar over two recent cases of men accused of having sex with 11-year-old girls.
Under the existing legislation, if there is no violence or coercion proved, offenders may only be charged with sexual abuse of a minor and not rape. This has a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of €75,000 (£66,000; $87,000).
Sentences are the same for sexual assaults of minors and non-minors, but rape convictions carry much harsher punishments.
The government is to approve the new age limit as part of a package of other laws against sexual violence and harassment in the coming weeks.
It had been discussing whether to set the age as 13 or 15, which is what groups fighting violence against children had campaigned for.
Ms Schiappa told AFP news agency that she was “very glad” that the higher age was chosen. The limit is also supported by President Emmanuel Macron.
Minister of Solidarity and Health Agnès Buzyn said setting a legal age of sexual consent would allow a “collective awareness” and that everyone would see what was “legal and illegal”, Le Figaro newspaper reports (in French).
Last November, a 30-year-old man was acquitted of rape after a court determined his 11-year-old victim had not been subjected to “constraint, threat, violence or surprise”.
In another case, a court initially said a 28-year-old man should face charges of sexual assault, and not rape, after saying the victim was not physically forced to have sex.
But the same court reversed its decision last month, saying the accused should indeed face rape charges.
Legislation varies across Europe, with countries setting different legal ages of consent:
- 14 years old: Austria, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Portugal
- 15: Greece, Poland, Sweden
- 16: Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia
- 17: Cyprus
In the UK the age of sexual consent is 16, but children under the age of 13 have additional legal protections that declare they can never consent to sexual activity.