A 33-year-old man has been convicted of raping an 11-year-old girl in a landmark case that led to the establishing of an age of consent in France.

The accused, who has not been named, admitted having sex with the secondary school pupil in 2017 after meeting her in a park. He was 28 at the time and insisted the girl had consented.

Late on Friday, the man was found guilty of raping a minor and given an eight-year prison sentence.

At an earlier trial almost five years ago, there was public outrage after a charge of rape was reduced to sexual assault. The subsequent political row led to a minimum age of consent of 15 being established in France in April last year.

Until then, French law had required an accuser under the age of 15 to show there was “violence, constraint, threat or surprise”, in the absence of which investigators classified the incident as the lesser offence of sexual abuse. Now the law deems sex with anyone under the age of 15 as automatically non-consensual, and therefore rape.

A new investigation was ordered. As the law cannot be applied retrospectively, the case was judged under the previous legislation. The man was accused of rape after magistrates decided there was “moral constraint and surprise” in his actions.

The trial, which began on Wednesday and was closed to the public and press, was judged by a professional panel of five magistrates without a jury. A number of child protection and feminist associations that were civil parties in the case were allowed to attend.

According to the indictment, the man first spoke to the girl in a park near the entrance to her school in Montmagny, in the Val-d’Oise north of Paris, in April 2017. A few days later they met again and he suggested he “teach her to kiss … and more”, then invited her back to his apartment nearby. The girl did not refuse and followed him.

She was performing oral sex on him in the stairwell on the ninth floor of the social housing block when the pair were interrupted by a caretaker. The girl then went to the man’s apartment two floors below where “penetration without violence” took place.

Afterwards, the girl said, he told her not to say anything about what happened but she immediately called her mother to say she had been raped.

Under police questioning, the accused said she had consented and that he had no idea she was only 11 and he had thought she was 16 or 18. She denied this, saying she had told him her age and shown him her schoolbook revealing what year she was in.

At the first trial in 2018, the public prosecutor decided that because the girl had not expressly said no, she had consented to sex and that the accused should face a lesser charge of sexual assault.

As a result of the outrage that followed, the court decided to order a fresh investigation. A three-year inquiry concluded that while there had been no “violence or physical constraint”, there had been a clear use of “moral constraint” and sent the man to trial on a charge of rape.

“It is scandalous that we’re having a legal debate about whether a child of 11 years consented,” the girl’s family’s lawyer, Carine Durrieu-Diebolt, said in 2017.

She described Friday’s judgment as “fair” and said it was “a recognition of the victim’s word above all”.

“It is also a victory for the law, since the case has led to legislative changes,” she said. “At the time of these events, French law was behind other European legislation.”

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