Human rights body scolds France for allowing spanking

The Council of Europe has criticized the use of corporal punishment by French parents, stating that it violates the charter that requires more clear cut lines for child discipline.

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
A view shows the illuminated Eiffel Tower and La Defense business district (background) in Paris February 24, 2015.

Scolding France like a wayward child, Europe's top human rights body says French laws aren't clear enough that spanking is a big no-no.

The 47-member Council of Europe said Wednesday that France is violating the European social charter because French law doesn't prohibit parents and others from corporal punishment of children in a "sufficiently clear, binding and precise manner."

France all but shrugged off the slap-down, with officials saying they wouldn't do anything in response.

But the move wades into a thorny, ongoing cultural debate in a country where child-rearing techniques have drawn praise in bestselling books and where "la fessée" - spanking - is often seen as a traditional, if preferably last-resort, form of discipline.

And France may not be alone in wearing the dunce's cap.

Wednesday's decision comes in response to a 2013 complaint from the Association for the Protection of All Children, or Approach, against France and six other countries: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy, Ireland, Slovenia, and Cyprus. The council said announcements will be made in late May on the remaining countries, except Cyprus - which has since banned corporal punishment.

Many former students - if increasingly graying ones - in France can remember the whack of a metal ruler on small fingers, or a firm tug on the ear, by teachers to bring misbehaving kids in line. Such techniques have been immortalized in black-and-white French films.

Opponents of corporal punishment say it can at least leave psychological scars, if not physical ones. And European institutions have increasingly ruled in their favor. But holding parents and guardians to the letter of the law seems more idealistic than practical: Enforcement in courts is admittedly a tough task.

French court rulings have allowed some forms of corporal punishment in the home, schools or childcare as part of a "right of correction," its complaint said. Polls over the years have suggested most French would object to a total ban on spanking, though that has been changing.

The 47-member Council, based in the eastern city of Strasbourg, took the decision in September but it was published Wednesday after the expiration of a four-month notification period for parties involved.

The council found that France was repeatedly in violation of the charter's Article 17, which among other things requires signatories to "protect children and young persons against negligence, violence or exploitation." France doesn't take that to mean all corporal punishment is banned.

As a signatory to the social charter, France is bound to follow the decision - as it sees fit.

French government spokesman Stephane Le Foll said there was no need for a new legislative debate on it, and there wouldn't be one. It was a sign that unpopular Socialist-led government was unwilling to risk political capital on an issue many French have made their minds on.

"Nobody here in France is for corporal punishment or has corporal punishment as a method of education," he told reporters. "So we are perfectly in line with the objectives."

Some court decisions have asserted a "right to smack" in France. The punishments in question include punching, hitting, kicking, and pinching, say council officials - and argue that children and adults should enjoy the same legal protections from violence.

"You couldn't thump an adult. Why could you thump a child? It's equal protection of the law," said Niamh Casey, a council lawyer who worked on the case. "Whether you prosecute that is a completely different matter."

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