World

Protesters urge French government to endorse EU rape law proposal

Gagged activists hold a placard as persons wearing a mask of French President Emmanuel Macron stand behind (Christophe Ena/AP/PA)
Gagged activists hold a placard as persons wearing a mask of French President Emmanuel Macron stand behind (Christophe Ena/AP/PA) Gagged activists hold a placard as persons wearing a mask of French President Emmanuel Macron stand behind (Christophe Ena/AP/PA)

Activists wearing masks depicting President Emmanuel Macron have called on the French government to change its position and endorse a law proposed by the European Union that would define rape as sex without consent in the bloc’s 27 countries.

The demonstrators gathered in Paris on the eve of International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women to apply pressure on the French head of state.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, proposed legislation last year to make consent-based rape laws consistent across the bloc and to introduce a common set of penalties.

While other details of the directive, which include a proposal for the criminalisation of female genital mutilation and cyberbullying, seem to gather a consensus among the 27 member countries, the definition of rape based on the lack of consent is deeply divisive.

According to Human Rights Watch, only 13 EU member states use consent-based definitions to criminalise rape.

Many others still require the use of force, or threat, to mete out punishment.

France, for instance, considers that a rape can be considered to have occurred when “an act of sexual penetration or an oral-genital act is committed on a person, with violence, coercion, threat or surprise”.

Criminal law attorney Sirine Sehil said: “I’m here today because it infuriates me to see that our criminal law is not up to the task, that today it allows for rape to happen.

“It does not take into account our consent, our will, what we, as women, want.”

The Paris action, where a banner said “Only yes means yes”, was organised by groups including non-profit organisation Avaaz and the European Women Lobby, an umbrella group of women’s non-governmental associations in Europe.

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to French government officials urging them to agree to the consent-based definition and to take a leading role in negotiations.

The letter said: “While we recognise that France aims to protect women’s rights and combat violence against women and girls, at present it regrettably remains in the company of member states including Poland and Hungary, and lags behind member states such as Spain, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark and Greece in amending its criminal law.

“This is an opportunity for France to not only take the necessary steps toward meeting its own international human rights obligations, but to lead the entire EU forward in its fight to combat violence against women and girls.”

Some EU countries have also argued that the issue of rape is a matter of criminal law, and therefore falls within the competence of member countries, not the EU.