The French government has backed the introduction of a minimum age of sexual consent of 15, a move that would bring it in line with most other Western countries, following years of campaigning by abuse victims.
The push for a change in the law follows a string of rape cases taken against adults over their relations with minors, many of which have foundered on the absence of a law banning sex between adults and children.
Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti said on Tuesday that the government would move to have any "act of sexual penetration by an adult involving a minor under 15" treated as rape.
Under current French law, prosecutors must conclude that a minor did not consent to sex -- meaning they were forced, threatened or duped into sex -- in order to bring charges of rape or sexual assault.
Speaking to France 2 television, the minister said public opinion had shifted on the issue of sex between adults and minors, long shrugged off in France as harmless in cases where the relations were presented as consensual, usually by the adult.
His office said in a statement that the idea of introducing a crime of statutory rape was to ensure "equal treatment of all underage victims" in the eyes of the law.
"We are cracking open this sort of ideological leaden weight which prevent victims' voices from being heard," Dupond-Moretti said.
Complainants would still, however, need to prove that their attackers knew their age, he said, adding that exceptions should be made for sexual relations between youngsters close in age.
His proposal contrasts with a bill drafted by members of the Senate, which calls for the age of consent to be set at 13.
- Proving lack of consent -
The debate over consent has been given fresh impetus by a case before France's top appeal court involving a woman who claims she was raped by over 20 firefighters between 2008 and 2010, when she was aged 13-15.
The woman, named as "Julie" in press reports, was hospitalised over 130 times for severe anxiety attacks as a teen, requiring the regular intervention of the ambulance service, which is staffed by firefighters.
The accused claim she consented to sex. Three firefighters were initially charged with gang rape but the charges were later downgraded to others which make it an offence for someone in a position of authority to have sex with a minor.
Julie's family say she was incapable of granting consent given her vulnerability and her age. She herself has insisted she never expressly consented to sex.
Julie's decade-long quest for justice has triggered a wave of support from feminists, hundreds of whom have staged protests outside courthouses and fire stations around France in the past week to press for a change to the law on sexual consent.
The Cour de Cassation will issue its verdict on the nature of the charges against the accused on March 17.
- 'Free to speak' -
The issue of child sexual abuse exploded on to the front pages in France last month after the daughter of former foreign minister Bernard Kouchner published a book accusing her step-father, prominent political commentator Olivier Duhamel, of having abused her twin brother as a child.
The revelations triggered an outpouring of accounts of sexual abuse within families on social media, similar to the #metoo wave of stories of sexual harassment and abuse unleashed by the case against US movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017.
President Emmanuel Macron has called for changes to the law to better protect victims of child sexual abuse.
Shame was "switching sides" from victims to perpetrators, he said in a video posted to Twitter, welcoming the fact that "people feel free to speak everywhere in France".
The debate around consent has been raging since 2018 when it emerged that a 28-year-old man who had sex with an 11-year-old girl he met in a park had been charged with sexual violation, not rape.
The cause caused a public outcry and the man was placed under investigation for rape.
Macron's government later pushed for the introduction of a minimum age of consent but withdrew the proposal after legal experts warned that creating an "automatic" crime -- in this case statutory rape -- that did not require a court hearing would contravene the constitution.