Reader question: I read in the UK press that there is no law against incest in France. Is this true?
This is true to a certain extent but the answer is not straightforward.
In France, there is no law in particular against two adults (those aged 18 and over) engaging in a consensual incestuous relationship or having children.
It is, however, forbidden for the couple to get married.
In the UK, all incestuous relationships are illegal.
But that does not mean that France has no laws against incest. In 2021, new laws were introduced with the aim of increasing the legal capacity of courts in tackling the incestuous abuse of minors.
A few different UK news outlets have run articles in 2022 saying that France is set to ban incest, although it is not clear what these articles are referring to.
What are France’s incest laws?
Sexual relations (incestuous or not) with anyone aged under 13 is a crime in France, regardless of the situation. In terms of non-incestuous sexual relations, sex with anyone aged under 15 is illegal if there is an age gap of more than five years. It means that, for example, it is illegal for a 25-year-old to have sex with a 14-year-old. This age limit is actually 18 in certain cases for incestuous relations, as of a recent law change.
Laws specifically around incest were for a long time tied in with the country’s sexual abuse laws and still are to an extent. The word incest was reintroduced into France’s penal code in 2016, but only as an additional qualification of rape, assualt or sexual molestation.
Prior to April 2021, victims of incestual abuse over the age of 13 had to prove that it was nonconsensual for the perpetrator to be tried. In this sense, there was no specific crime against incest, but there were ways for the law to punish people found guilty of this act.
The 2021 law, called the ‘loi Billon’, changed that and introduced several new rules around incest.
Firstly, it made it categorically illegal for parents, step parents, grandparents or any other family member in a “position of authority” to have incestuous relations with a person under the age of 18.
In this situation, the need to prove lack of consent is not required.
When the incest is carried out by a brother, uncle or nephew who is not considered to have authority over the person, it is still possible for the act to be classified as illegal incest without the need to prove lack of consent if the victim is under 15 and the age difference between the perpetrator and the victim is more than five years.
Otherwise, it is likely the victim will have to prove lack of consent.
For whatever reason, the law specifies male relatives and not female relatives.
There are various other permutations involved in classifying acts of incest in France, which have been set out by the anti-incest association ‘Face à l'inceste’ at this link.
One reason for the complexity is this stipulation about the five-year age gap that applies in certain contexts.
It is in place to prevent two young people of a similar age from being charged for rape or sexual abuse (incestuous or otherwise) when they are in a consensual relationship.
Face à l'inceste points out the flaw in this, which is that if the perpetrator is, for an example, an 18-year-old man who is not in a position of authority, and he sexually abuses his sister who is 14, then the onus is on the sister to prove the nonconsensual nature of the abuse as the age gap is under five years.
Incest stats in France
A possible 6.7 million people in France are victims of incestuous abuse, a 2020 poll carried out by Face à l'inceste shows.
The association ran a poll of 1,033 people and found that 10% of people asked said they had been subjected to incestuous abuse. Scaling this up to match France’s population of just over 67 million, the association deduced that there are 6.7 million victims.
The association carried out similar surveys in 2009, when 3% said they were victims of incest, and in 2015, when 6% confirmed this.
“With each survey, more and more French people are declaring themselves victims and we are therefore getting closer to the real figure of the scale of this public health crisis,” the association states.
“However, we know that it is still underestimated, since many victims are still in denial.”