France May Make Mental Violence a Crime

Published: February 25, 2010

PARIS — France’s National Assembly approved Thursday night a proposal to add “psychological violence” to a law intended to help victims of physical violence and abuse, despite doubts that the law is specific enough to have much impact.

The proposed law says that to “act or repeatedly say things that could damage the victim’s life conditions, affect his/her rights and his/her dignity or damage his/her physical or mental health” is punishable by a jail term of up to three years and a fine of up to 75,000 euros, or about $103,000. Carefully covering both genders, the law applies to behavior toward a wife, husband, partner or concubine.

Danielle Bousquet, a Socialist, and Guy Geoffroy, a member of the ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement, wrote the draft law, supported by 30 other legislators. It received backing last November from the government and Prime Minister François Fillon, who called it “very significant progress.”

The new law, Mr. Fillon said, “will allow people to take into account the most insidious situations, which don’t leave a mark to the naked eye but can mutilate the victim’s inner self.” He called the issue “a great national cause,” and the government has started a series of commercials on television to sensitize viewers to conjugal violence, especially against women.

Ms. Bousquet, 64, said that psychological violence could be gradual. “In the beginning, there are only slight offenses, a husband who is a little too insistent and domineering with his wife, but then the husband’s ascendancy becomes more prominent and each time the victim strikes back, the tone changes and physical violence can set in,” she said in an interview together with Mr. Geoffroy.

“Fear isn’t something you can easily simulate,” she said. “It’s not hard to see whether a woman is terrified or not.”

Mr. Geoffroy, 60, said that psychological violence was identifiable, through text messages, testimony and the use of slander. “We are very much convinced that the situation of a woman who is a victim of domestic violence should be better and more clearly recognized,” he said. “We want her to be recognized as a victim and protected.”

Despite widespread support for the law, some legal officials are skeptical. Christophe Vivet, the vice prosecutor of Grenoble and a member of the main union for magistrates, said, “The draft law turns a very vague behavior into an infraction, while in criminal law, behaviors are defined very precisely so that each citizen knows what is or is not allowed.”

The problem, he said in an interview, is that the law “creates a great uncertainty over the nature of a forbidden behavior and gives a large space to the arbitrary,” giving judges too much leeway. Criminal law, he said, “is not the solution for every human behavior, and creating a crime means also setting up a criminal procedure, arrests, and so on.”

In France, Mr. Vivet said, there is another such law, on “moral harassment,” which is “very difficult to implement and hard to establish, because we need elements of proof.”

The law “is paved with good intentions, but we are extremely doubtful about it,” he said. “It relies on the central idea that a woman who files a complaint tells the truth, so it relies on a presumption of guilt, while French law is based on a presumption of innocence.”

Asked on French radio if psychological violence would be hard to prove, Nadine Morano, the secretary of state for the family, argued that “it wouldn’t be hard to prove, because there are, often, many proofs — I think about text messages on cellphones, letters, insults, testimonies. I think about psychological despair.” On a special telephone hot line for female victims, she said, 84 percent of the calls involved psychological abuse.

Ms. Bousquet and Mr. Geoffroy cite an increase in violence against women, saying that a woman dies every 2.2 days in France because of domestic violence. Domestic violence, they said, affects 10 percent of women ages 18 to 60, and about 1.5 million women are victims of violence from their partners.

The law would allow a woman to get a temporary protection order to evict a violent partner or husband, or find another place to live. Another element, imported from Spain and inserted into the law last week by the Justice Ministry, foresees an electronic bracelet with a GPS unit worn by the violent partners, so their movements can be tracked by the police.

The French Senate is examining a similar law, with the intention of reaching a single text, which is expected to receive final passage this summer.

Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.


spotted by RS

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