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France mulls 'psychological violence' ban

By David Chazan
BBC News, Paris

Woman (generic)
Psychological violence can be hard to prove

If you insult your wife or husband repeatedly, you could soon find yourself in court if you live in France.

The charge? Psychological violence.

That's what the new offence will be called if a bill backed by the government is passed by parliament.

Once considered a purely private domain, rows between married or cohabiting couples could now prompt intervention from the state.

The French government wants to take the controversial step of introducing a new law banning "psychological violence" between married couples or partners living together.

But there are questions about how such an offence could be proved.

No visible scars

Many people fear that courts might find it tricky to assess the rival claims of squabbling couples.

He would start by saying I was very fat, that I was ugly, that I wasn't any use for anything
Gabrielle

But the government says it would allow the authorities to deal with mental and verbal abuse in couples which leaves no visible scars, but where the victims are often badly damaged psychologically.

Gabrielle - not her real name - is a media professional in her 30s. She has a good job in Paris but she says psychological violence by her ex-partner pushed her to the brink of a breakdown.

"It started when I got pregnant," she told me. "He would start by saying that I was very fat, that I was ugly, of course, that I wasn't any use for anything, that I couldn't even work."

She said when she challenged him, he replied that it was a joke.

But the abuse continued. One day, she says they had an argument in their car and he punched the windscreen so hard that it broke.

"I thought I was going to go crazy and he said, 'OK are you going crazy? I'm just going to drop you at the psychiatric asylum'. And that's what he did."

Gabrielle says he drove to a hospital, told her to get out of the car and drove off.

"When he left I was just breaking down and my daughter was crying inside the car."

'My word against his'

If there had been a law against psychological violence, Gabrielle said she would have taken her ex-partner to court.

But she admitted that proving the allegations would have been difficult.

"It would be basically my word against his," she said. "In very rare cases would he say something in front of somebody else."

Even supporters of the bill have concerns about how courts could prosecute a crime for which there is unlikely to be any physical evidence.

Psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen is an authority on psychological violence but she said she was "cautious" about a new law because she fears it might be easily misused.

"I think it's important to have a law but it must be formulated so there isn't too much risk of manipulation or mistakes," she told me.

Psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen
Even if there are no physical blows, it's still devastating
Dr Marie-France Hirigoyen

"I treat people whose lives have been torn apart but they haven't been hit. There are no physical marks, no proof."

Dr Hirigoyen suggested that recordings of phone calls could be used as evidence - along with medical and psychiatric assessments.

Lawyer Laurent Hincker, a fervent supporter of the bill, said it would not be the only crime on the books that is difficult to prove.

"There are other crimes which are also hard to prove, such as bullying or harassment in the workplace," he said.

"For a long time people said you can't have a law against bullying because it's too difficult to prove, but now there is a law and people get convicted."

One problem is that the concept of psychological violence may be hard to define.

But Dr Hirigoyen said it was obvious to a professional.

"It's a relationship which is based on control and domination - and if you want to prevent physical violence, you have to take action early on," she said.

Dr Hirigoyen said psychological violence was often the first step towards physical violence.

"But even if there are no physical blows, it's still devastating," she added.

Public misgivings

Last year the French government launched a TV campaign to increase awareness of psychological violence.

Still from French TV campaign to raise awareness of psychological violence
The government has launched a TV campaign to raise awareness

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.

And the move is being welcomed by women's groups - and by those, like Gabrielle, who believe it could save women from mental breakdown and the threat of physical violence.



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