Aside from passing laws in 1996 and 2006 to protect women from violent husbands and partners, France has largely tried to deal with the once hushed-up problem of domestic abuse through education and public awareness campaigns. In the coming weeks, however, conservative legislators are expected to introduce a bill that would outlaw "conjugal abuse of a psychological nature" in both married and unmarried relationships. Backed by President Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling party, which increases its chances of passing, the legislation seeks to target the verbal and mental denigration, humiliation and manipulation that typically lead to physical abuse. The hope is that the bill will help prevent the emotional wounds that words often cause before a punch is ever thrown.
"It's an important move forward, because the creation of this offense will let us tackle the most insidious situations - the ones that leave no physical scars but which still injure the victims inside," Prime Minister FranÇois Fillon said in November when he announced the government would pass a ban on psychological abuse before the end of this year.
Few contest that domestic abuse is a problem in France, which, like most Latin nations, has long viewed it as an unfortunate component of the permanent wrangling between the sexes. According to government statistics, 157 women and seven men died as a result of domestic violence in France in 2008. But French attitudes started to change in 2004 when the French actress Marie Trintignant was killed by her lover and several other women lost their lives in domestic disputes. Activists argued that the law defining domestic battery as simply illegal assault was insufficient, so they pushed for a law, passed in 2006, establishing domestic violence as grounds for immediate divorce and giving victims the means of obtaining protection from violent spouses.
But some say this is still not enough. According to government statistics, about 10% of all women in France are victims of domestic mistreatment of some kind, and 80% of women who make calls to state-funded help lines complain of severe verbal abuse, compared to 77% who report physical violence. Though preventive measures and the 2006 law have succeeded in reducing the instances of physical domestic abuse in the country, there's a growing sentiment that something must be done to halt the emotional and mental trauma that continues unabated behind closed doors.
"We know physical abuse is always preceded by psychological violence, but we also know there are countless people who live in fear, humiliation and in total submission to verbally brutal partners who never hit them," says YaËl Mellul, a lawyer for abused women who began the push to draw up the pending legislation over two years ago. "We need clear legal statutes prohibiting the repetitive, regular barrage of insult, denigration, threats, financial or familial blackmail and other ways people overpower victims into submission."
The bill has its opponents, though. Some sociologists, psychologists and legal experts argue that legislating what happens in a relationship is an invasion of privacy. Some pundits - especially journalists working for British papers - have even conjured up scenes of police raids of dinnertime spats, or husbands getting a hard time for telling their wives they spend too much. Mellul says that such comments miss the point.
"Domestic disputes and conflicts aren't just normal - they're usually salutary in releasing pressure and finding compromise," she says. "We're talking about the regular, repetitive verbal and psychological treatment characteristic of abusers vis-À-vis their victims. There's a clear difference between mental cruelty and having a row over where to go on vacation."
Some skeptics also say that securing court convictions for psychological violence in relationships would be impossible. But while Mellul admits it would indeed be difficult, she says it wouldn't be impossible, particularly if victims provide ample evidence of the psychological abuse. "If a law putting a name to and describing the crime can help victims realize they're being wronged and do something to stop it, that in itself will be a major step," Mellul says. "What child dare stepped up to denounce abuse before they were told they should? How many women never bothered to report rape until they knew police would take them seriously? Well, this effort seeks to give victims of psychological violence the same backing and legal framework that victims of physical domestic abuse are using to stop their torment."
In other words, it may be a far-fetched idea - but one whose time appears to have come.