Lawmakers in France's National Assembly have voted against an amendment to lower the Value Added Tax (VAT) paid on feminine sanitary products from 20 percent to 5.5 percent.
Deputies rejected the amendment in the early hours of Thursday, after debating the issue for just 15 minutes. Opponents of the amendment — which was previously endorsed by a parliamentary commission — won by a one-vote margin.
During the debate, France's Secretary of State for the Budget Christian Eckert noted that, "Men's shaving foam is also taxed at 20 percent," triggering a wave of angry responses from feminists and commentators on social media.
The proposed amendment to the 2016 budget was introduced by Socialist Deputy Catherine Coutelle, who also chairs the National Assembly's Women's Rights Delegation.
"I wanted to bring this matter into the public arena," Coutelle said Friday, adding that she would appeal the rejection in the Senate. "We consider these to be basic need products, because women who use these products have no choice but to use them," she explained. According to Coutelle, the so-called "tampon tax" affects 15 million women in France.
VAT is a consumption tax paid on certain goods and services, which is included in the sale price. There are four rates of VAT in France, including the 5.5 percent rate, which is applied to such staples as food, gas and electricity, but also books.
The standard VAT rate applied to most goods is 20 percent. The is followed by the 10 percent rate, which applies to restaurants, transport, and agricultural products. The lowest rate is 2.1 percent — a special rate applied to medical drugs reimbursed by the French social security, and some newspapers.
"The government does not want to budge on the VAT rates…This goes for this amendment and for the plethora of amendements that we are due to examine in the coming days," said Eckert. According to the government, reducing the VAT on tampons, sanitary pads and menstrual cups would slash tax receipts by 55 million euros ($63 million).
In an interview with French daily Le Parisien, State Secretary for Women's Rights Pascale Boistard conceded that feminine hygiene products were "clearly a necessary purchase." She did however defend Eckert's position and said the budget secretary was merely highlighting "the complexity of the VAT issues."
"Most personal hygiene products are submitted to the same rate, including those used by men. It's an argument I can also take into account," she said.
"Basic need" products
In comparing tampons to shaving cream, Eckert drew the ire of French feminist collective Georgette Sand, which first raised awareness of the unfair tampon tax.
"There is no disgrace associated with an unshaven chin, whereas a lack of menstrual protection would hardly go unnoticed," the collective said on its website. The cornerstone of the collective's argument is that feminine hygiene products — unlike shaving cream — come under the "basic need" product label.
"It's obvious he doesn't know what he's talking about," said Gaëlle Couraud, a member of the collective. "The message behind all this is: I'm not going to let a bunch of girls mess with my VAT. Let's move on to serious matters," Couraud said Friday.
Those who oppose lower taxes for tampons often cite the example of toilet paper, which could also be considered a "basic need" product, but is nonetheless subject to the 20 percent VAT. rate. "Except that toilet paper is often freely available in public places, which is not the case for sanitary protection," explained Couraud.
The Georgette Sand collective is hoping to collaborate with their British, German, and Italian counterparts to challenge the tax at EU level.
Canada scraps tampon tax
A petition to lower the tax launched by the collective back in March collected 19,000 signatures. A similar petition started in the UK by British feminist Laura Coryton was signed by nearly 250,000 people. In the UK, the VAT for sanitary products dropped from 17.5 percent to 5 percent in 2000.
"We are asking for these products to be taxed at a rate of 5.5 percent, or better still, 2.1 percent," said Couraud. "British, Italian, and German women have asked for a complete removal of VAT for these products, which are already subject to lower [tax] rates. We're really lagging behind in France."
In July, Canada stopped taxing feminine hygiene products altogether.
Taxes on tampons in the US vary by state; there are five states that do not tax tampons. Seven states do not have sales taxes.
Follow Lucie Aubourg on Twitter: @LucieAbrg
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