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Armelle Le Bigot Macaux, head of the Children Rights council, answers reporters at the Pontoise palace of justice in Paris on Feb. 13, 2018.

Francois Mori/AP

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

Unlike many countries, France does not have a legal age under which a minor cannot consent to a sexual relationship. Lawyers for the suspect argued that the girl was consenting and aware of what she was doing, while lawyers for the girl have said that 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 send the man to trial on charges of "sexual abuse of a minor under 15 years old," and not rape.

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Given the sensitive nature of the trial, the presiding judge took the unusual step of closing the proceedings to the public and journalists.

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

The case is the latest of several that prompted an uproar over France's rules on child sex abusers, considered too lax by child rights and feminist groups.

The cases led French President Emmanuel Macron's government to propose a bill that would introduce a minimum legal age for sexual consent for the first time – and include a provision saying that sex with children under a certain age is by definition coercive.

France currently has no specific legal limit, though in one past case involving multiple child victims from 1 1/2 to 5 years old, the country's top court ruled that they should be automatically regarded as non-consenting.

The proposed minimum age hasn't yet been decided on, but the cutoff could be between the ages of 13 and 15. The bill, a broad-based measure aimed at fighting "sexual and sexist violence," is expected to be presented to the French Cabinet next month.

In the case in Pontoise on Tuesday, the girl's family filed a complaint for rape after the incident in April in the town of Montmagny, in the suburban Val-d'Oise region.

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But the prosecution considered that the suspect did not use violence or coercion. French law defines rape as any act of sexual penetration committed "by violence, coercion, threat or surprise."

Defence lawyers have said the man and the girl met in a small park and that the girl voluntarily followed the man into an apartment block and freely consented to have sex with him. They've also claimed that their client, then aged 28, thought the girl was over 15.

"She was 11 years and 10 months old, so nearly 12 years old. It changes the story," defence lawyer Marc Goudarzian said. "So she is not a child."

His colleague Sandrine Parise-Heideiger went further: "We are not dealing with a sexual predator on a poor little faultless goose." She said that as soon as children have "sexual expressiveness and you have an attitude of putting yourself in danger" then "it doesn't necessarily mean the person on the other side is a sexual predator."

Children's rights groups and a psychiatrist testifying in the case argued otherwise.

The suspect "pretended he thought she was 15 – if not 18 – came to pick her up her at school, saw her school report, knew very well she was a young child," said Armelle Le Bigot Macaux, president of the COFRADE, an umbrella group for several associations for children's rights. "This young child isn't protected today by our French society."

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Lawyers for the family are asking the court to re-characterize the charge from sexual abuse to rape. If the presiding judge grants their request, the case may be sent back to investigators and the trial postponed to a later date.

A verdict in the case was not expected Tuesday.

A similar recent case caused disbelief and outrage. A French criminal court in November acquitted a 30-year-old man who was accused of raping an 11-year-old girl in 2009. The jury in the Paris suburban region of Seine-et-Marne found that the man didn't use violence or coercion.

The subject of sexual misconduct has drawn fresh attention in France and worldwide since rape and sexual assault allegations were made against Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein.

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