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French Activists Push For Better Consent Laws


It took years of debate. But finally, last month, France set an official age of sexual consent. They set it at 15 years of age. But activists say consent shouldn't only be about minors. And just a warning, this story contains details of sexual violence, so it may not be suitable for all listeners. Rebecca Rosman reports from Paris.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: A year and a half ago, Vanessa Springora shook France's literary world when she published her memoir "Consentement" - or "Consent."


VANESSA SPRINGORA: "Le Consentement."

ROSMAN: The book detailed a romantic relationship she had in the mid-1980s with a well-known writer named Gabriel Matzneff. She was 14 then. He was almost 50. At the time, she says she thought she was in love with him. Now she looks back on the situation and sees herself as a victim.


SPRINGORA: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSMAN: "My consent wasn't valid," Springora says, "or at least it wasn't informed." After a series of allegations of incest and child sex abuse against several high-profile men, including Matzneff, in April, the French parliament unanimously passed a bill setting the age of consent at 15 years old. Any adult accused of having sex with someone under that age will no longer be able to claim consent as a defense. But activists say there's no protection for people older than 15.

CATHERINE LE MAGUERESSE: French law doesn't define consent.

ROSMAN: Catherine Le Magueresse teaches law at the Sorbonne and is the author of the book "Les Pieges Du Consentement" - or "The Pitfalls Of Consent." She explains that the French penal code has no definition for what consent is, only what it isn't.

LE MAGUERESSE: It just says that there is a lack of consent if you can prove that the perpetrator used violence, threats, coercion or surprise.

ROSMAN: In other words, a perpetrator can only be found guilty if the victim can establish the rape or sexual assault contained at least one of those four elements.

LE MAGUERESSE: Example, the woman doesn't know the perpetrator. He is a stranger to her. He used violence. She's a perfect victim, meaning she was not wearing things that could be seen as provocation.

ROSMAN: But she says that's not how most sexual assaults happen. Most victims are not perfect victims. And establishing one of these four elements is much harder to do in a court of law than it sounds. Take a case like this one. Amanda (ph) was in her mid-20s when she left her native Toronto and came to Paris to teach English.

AMANDA: I guess, maybe, it's a little bit of the cliche. You know, like, oh, Paris (laughter). It's so beautiful.

ROSMAN: This was in 2011. NPR is only using Amanda's first name to protect her identity. When her teaching contract ended, she decided to stay in France and found work as an apprentice at a tattoo parlor. She was being paid under the table then because her visa had expired until one day, her boss told her he couldn't afford to take the risk anymore. He was letting her go. Amanda was distraught. That job was her entire livelihood.

AMANDA: I said, you know, is there anything I can do? Like, please, I really need to keep my job. And he's like, well, I don't know. There's one thing you could do, I guess. You could have sex with me. And then I'll consider keeping you.

ROSMAN: Her boss, who was in his 50s at the time, locked the door and insisted on having sex with her. When he tried it a second time, she recorded him.

AMANDA: I had my phone in my pocket. And I said, you know, I would never have done this unless you forced me to for the job.

ROSMAN: Well, you still did it, he responded.

AMANDA: And for me, like, this recording is an absolute admission of his guilt.

ROSMAN: Marjolaine Vignola is Amanda's lawyer. She says this recording proves Amanda was blackmailed or coerced under the law.

MARJOLAINE VIGNOLA: And blackmail, for me, is a way to coerce somebody and is a way to take the consent of the victim by force because you take it by blackmail.

ROSMAN: But the recording and testimony was seen by the court as proof that Amanda was a voluntary participant and found her boss not guilty of sexual assault.

VIGNOLA: Judges, for them, it's very hard to see those things and to really analyze the facts as they are. And the law doesn't push them to do so.

ROSMAN: Vignola says if there had been a clearer definition of what consent actually is, then maybe the verdict would've been different for Amanda. For example, last month, lawmakers in New York presented a bill to change its definition of consent to hold sexual predators accountable. If passed, consent would be formally defined as a, quote, "freely given, knowledgeable and informed agreement obtained without the use of malice, including coercion." Without a clear definition like that, Catherine Le Magueresse of the Sorbonne says adult victims find themselves fighting traditional prejudices in these cases.

LE MAGUERESSE: When it's adult woman or young woman - with women, you're always of the suspicion that they're lying and they're hysteric.

ROSMAN: The real obstacle in front of us, she says, isn't changing the law, it's changing attitudes towards victims, even the not-so-perfect ones.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Rosman