France, for years notoriously laissez-faire when it came to domestic abuse, is making up for lost time: with proposed "anti-psychological abuse" legislation:
The bill, which targets "conjugal abuse of a psychological nature" within relationships is backed by Sarkozy's party and, as Time puts it, "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."
This marks a sea-change for a nation that only passed specific domestic violence laws in 2006 and which reported 164 deaths in 2008 as a direct result of domestic violence. And, obviously, systemic psychological abuse (as distinct from squabbling) and often involving intimidation and threats is a serious problem. As one psychiatrist told NPR, "It's a pre-cursor to violence, about 40 percent of them will become domestic violence. But psychologically speaking, it actually does more damage than physical abuse."
The issue, of course, is how to prove such abuse - and the proposed law isn't particularly helpful, seeking as it does to prosecute what another NPR story calls "every kind of insult, including repeated rude remarks about a partner's appearance, false allegations of infidelity and threats of physical violence." Not only does this boil down to quite literal he-said, she-said, but the opportunities for abuse of the law - and even privacy violation - seem vast. Then too, there's the trenchant point one women's shelter worker made to NPR: "While men inflict physical violence, many people say women engage in psychological violence. We foresee a dangerous situation where this law will lead to charges against the victims by the perpetrators, who will claim they are the victims of verbal abuse." What becomes self-defense?
While a renewed focus on domestic violence - and the conversation this generates - are good things, France's other recent measure, such as a sustained public-service campaign, increased education, electronic bracelets for repeat offenders and more women's shelters, seem both more practical and far less problematic.