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French MPs back ban on smacking children

AFP (file photo) | France's National Assembly.

The French National Assembly voted Friday in favour of a largely symbolic ban on parents smacking their children, a practice which though condemned by the UN still enjoys widespread support in the country.

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The bill on "corporal punishment or humiliation" seeks to ensure that parental authority is exercised "without violence" of any sort, including "physical, verbal or psychological" violence.

MPs voted it through 51-1 early Friday morning, after a late-night debate, and it will now pass to the Senate.

The draft law was proposed by an MP from the centrist Democratic Movement party, Maud Petit, but received the backing of French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République en Marche, and was boosted by the health minister Agnès Buzyn and the Secretary of Equality, Marlène Schiappa.

Previous governments have attempted to ban the practice, but have been thwarted by conservatives. Eric Ciotti, an MP from conservative party The Republicans, said it was “propaganda legislation” pushing “pseudo official morality”.

According to the non-governmental Childhood Foundation, 85 percent of French parents resort to corporal punishment. Schools have long been banned from physically punishing children, but not parents.

Among European Union countries, France is in the minority with its rules on corporal punishment in the home. It is one of seven EU countries that still allow parents to smack children, alongside Italy, the UK, Belgium, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Switzerland.

Crucially, France’s bill would not sanction parents who continue to "discipline" their children as its main goal is "educational" – a way to encourage society to mend its views.

But it will slap down a 19th-century addendum to the Civil Code's definition of parental authority, which is read out to couples during their wedding vows and that specifically allows for "disciplining" children.

Smacking 'should not be tolerated'

FRANCE 24 spoke to Gilles Lazimi, a doctor specialising in children’s rights. He said that the law is about “making society do something, ending tolerance of this kind of violence and getting rid of these practices from another era”.

A children’s rights panel at the National Assembly interviewed Lazimi as part of their review of the law.

“The idea is to condemn any action directed at a child that aims to make them suffer,” he explained. At what point does a smack become an act of violence?

“We ask ourselves this all the time when it comes to children, even though the line is very clear when it’s for adults,” Lazimi said. “A ‘little’ smack would be seen as a violent act if it were between adults. It has to be the same for a child. This shouldn’t be tolerated.”

In March 2015, human rights organisation the Council of Europe singled out France for failing to ban smacking.

A year later, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child took up the issue, calling on France to "explicitly prohibit" all forms of corporal punishment of children.

Lazimi said that many parents don’t realise how harmful smacking can be: “Fifty per cent of parents who smack their children do it when they’re as young as two years old. This is pointless, because when a child is that young, they don’t understand why they’re being hit and they’re terrified.”

Verbal aggression as damaging as physical aggression

Lazimi, who has been practising medicine for over 30 years, thinks that verbal aggression can be just as damaging as physical aggression.

“Saying something like, ‘You’re good for nothing’, and repeating it over time can have a dreadful effect," said the doctor. "It’s a form of humiliation, and can have a real impact on their self-esteem, even when they’re an adult.”

A study published in 2018 in The BMJ, a peer-reviewed medical journal, found that “repeated exposures to corporal punishment reinforce aggressive thoughts, emotions and actions towards others”, and that countries with a total ban on corporal punishment both in schools and in the home had less fighting than countries with no such bans.

If the bill is adopted, France will become the 55th state to ban corporal punishment of children, a move started by Sweden in 1979.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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