Words Hurt: France Contemplates Prohibition on Psychological and Verbal Abuse of Domestic Partner

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The BBC reports here that the French parliament is considering criminal penalties against those who psychologically or verbally abuse their spouse or live-in partner.  The BBC article highlights the French-language TV ad below, which portrays a man verbally abusing his wife [trigger warning].

Here is how the BBC describes it:

Last year the French government launched a TV campaign to increase awareness of psychological violence.  The campaign featured a 30-second spot produced by a film director, Jacques Audiard.  It shows a man who denigrates and insults his wife.  It also links physical violence with mental abuse.

On average, almost three women die each week in France after being assaulted by a partner or ex-partner.

The government says if the authorities can deal with psychological violence, physical violence can be prevented or reduced.  But many members of the public have misgivings about how a law would work in practice.

Parliament is almost certain to pass this controversial bill on psychological violence.  It is backed by Prime Minister Francois Fillon and key members of the governing party.

The French government maintains a website (here) to promote its anti-abuse message, which targets workplace abuse, female genital mutilation, and forced marriages, in addition to verbal abuse and all forms of  domestic violence.

The proposed French legislation recognizes that verbal abuse can cause as much harm as physical domestic violence.   In my article, Sticks and Stones May Break Your Bones but Words Can Really Hurt You: The Case for Criminalizing Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress, I note that the criminal law lags behind the scientific academy, which has concluded that one can experience physical pain in response to a tone or particular set of words.

To the extent that one agrees that words hurt, the proposed French law is of value in that it equates emotionally stinging verbiage with a slap or punch, by recognizing that  the words,”you are a lazy, incompetent idiot”when meted out by a spouse, can carry the same sting as a kick in the shin.   The proposed law’s greatest value, however, lies in the deterrent effect it may have in preventing more violence.   Studies confirm that over 80% of physical domestic violence is preceded by verbal abuse.   The proposed ban would allow the government to intervene upon notice of mental abuse before it turns to physical violence.

-Leslie Yalof Garfield

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