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The French Government Is Telling Citizens That Spanking Kids Is Bad

Unlike in 50 other countries, physically punishing children is legal in France —but people are being advised that it's a bad idea anyway.

by Pierre-Louis Caron
Apr 6 2016, 3:37pm

Image via French Ministry for Families, Childhood and Women's Rights

The French government is telling its citizens not to spank their kids.

The Ministry for Families, Childhood and Women's Rights has unveiled a new "Parents' Handbook" — a 15-page booklet that will be sent to parents expecting their first child.

The handbook — which was presented to the press by Minister Laurence Rossignol, and will be ready for distribution on April 11 — replaces the "Fatherhood Handbook." Introduced in 2001, the "Fatherhood Handbook" was designed to help educate future fathers about their rights and responsibilities.

One of the book's five chapters — titled "Being a parent today" — advises future parents against spanking, a practice that is legal in France despite widespread condemnation.

The booklet advises parents that "Hitting a child (spanks, slaps, taps, brutality) has no educational value," and that corporal punishment can "generate stress and affect [a child's] development."

In a sub-chapter about the rights of children, the book's authors explain that infants are particularly vulnerable to such methods of parenting. "Your baby does not scream to annoy you," says the booklet. "Getting angry at a crying baby is pointless and can create anxiety [for the child]."

Every year, nearly 200 children in France suffer from so-called "shaken baby" syndrome, which can result in serious brain injury for infants. Shaking a baby is considered an "act of willful violence" by French law, and can be punished by up to 30 years in prison.

Over the past few years, there has been a campaign to ban corporal punishment in France. In a statement published on February 4, the Ordinary Educational Violence Observatory or OVEO, a French watchdog for the prevention of violence against children, renewed its call for a legal ban on corporal punishment. "In France, you're not allowed to hit an adult, not allowed to hit a pet, but you can hit a child," OVEO said in a statement.

"The handbook is not the legislation we were hoping for, but it's a first step," OVEO president Olivier Maurel told VICE News. "It's the first time there's any mention of physical punishment in this kind of document," he said, adding that spanking children is illegal in almost fifty countries.

According to Maurel, the government's advice would be more effective if it was underpinned by explicit legislation — as it has been, for example, in Sweden, which became the first country to ban the physical punishment of children in 1979.

"We have observed an important decrease in the number of people who consider physical punishment to be normal," explained Maurel. "In Sweden, for example, that rate went down from 70 percent to 10 percent over the course of 15 years."

There is however a legal precedent in France for parents landing convictions because of spanking. In 2013, a father near the central city of Limoges was sentenced to pay a 500 euro ($570) fine for smacking his bare-bottomed 9-year-old child — a gesture the court ruled was "violent" and "degrading," given that the child's clothing was removed. At the time, the father said that he was a victim of "the current trend, which dictates that you shouldn't punish your children."

According to France's criminal code, parents found guilty of the mistreatment of minors — including physical violence but also humiliations and verbal abuse — can be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Physical punishment, however, is not explicitly mentioned in the text, and has long been considered a grey area of the law.

In March 2015, the Council of Europe condemned France for not explicitly banning the physical punishment of children. "We don't need a law," retorted Rossignol, then secretary of state for family affairs. Rossignol argued that, instead of introducing a ban on spanking, the government would focus its efforts on educating parents on the issue of child abuse.

"One of the reasons the French have a hard time judging corporal punishment is that they say 'I had it and I survived'," she explained at the time. OVEO echoes this sentiment, writing in its February statement that parents who were spanked as kids are more likely to pass down "the only educational pattern they know, from one generation to the next."

Pending the introduction of a bill to outlaw corporal punishment, the French government seems to have elected to move away from a legislative solution and is instead focusing on educating future parents.

Speaking Monday to the press, Rossignol said that health officials would also be promoting the "prenatal interview" — an opportunity for pregnant women to meet alone or with their partner with a health professional. The aim of the "prenatal interview" — which is available to all pregnant women and is completely reimbursed by the state — is to allow expectant mothers to discuss their feelings about the pregnancy and to help plan the arrival of their baby.

The minister also announced that additional funds would be unlocked to help finance the government's new parent initiatives. The budget for these initiatives is expected to reach 100 million euros by 2017 — twice as much as what was spent in 2012.

Follow Pierre-Louis Caron on Twitter: @pierrelouis_c

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This article originally appeared in VICE News' French edition.