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French underage sex trial fuels debate

A 29-year-old French man has gone on trial in a Paris suburb for having sex with an 11-year-old girl, in a case that has rekindled strong debate on the age of sexual consent in France.

Unlike many countries, France does not have a legal age under which a minor cannot agree to a sexual relationship - although the country's top court has ruled that children aged five and under cannot consent.

Lawyers for the suspect argued that the girl was consenting and aware of what she was doing, while lawyers for the girl have said she was simply too young and confused to resist.

In a decision that shocked many, the prosecutor's office in the town of Pontoise decided to put the man on trial not for rape but for charges of "sexual abuse of a minor under 15."

Defense lawyers say the man and the girl met in a park and the girl voluntarily followed him to an apartment and consented to have sex. They've also claim their client, then 28, thought she was over 15.

If convicted of sexual abuse, the suspect, a father of two, faces up to five years in prison. The rape of a minor under 15, however, is punishable with up to 20 years in prison.

Carine Diebolt, the lawyer for the family, asked the court to re-characterise the charge from sexual abuse to rape.

The presiding judge said the prosecutor chose a wrong charge and ordered the case to be sent back to investigators for a thorough investigation. As a result, the trial was postponed.

The Montmagny case is one of several that have prompted an uproar over France's rules on child sex abusers, which are considered too lax by child rights groups and feminists.

French President Emmanuel Macron's government has proposed a bill to introduce a minimum legal age for sexual consent for the first time - and includes a provision saying that sex with children under a certain age is by definition coercive.

© AP 2018

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