The 47-member Council of Europe (COE) said France was violating the European social charter because French law did not prohibit parents and others from corporal punishment of children in a “sufficiently clear, binding and precise manner”.
The decision follows a 2013 complaint by the Association for the Protection of All Children, or Approach, against seven countries. Public announcements in five other cases will be made later, while the final country, Cyprus, has now banned all types of corporal punishment.
Approach’s complaint against France two years ago said some forms of corporal punishment of children have been allowed in the home, in schools or in childcare as part of a “right of correction” in French customary law.
The punishments in question include punching, hitting, kicking and pinching, say council officials – noting that behaviour with children should legally be no different than with adults.
Welcoming the ruling, Approach spokesman Peter Newell said: “In many countries, violent punishment of children is the only form of interpersonal violence in the family that is still legal.
“We are pleased that the council finds France in violation of the social charter.”
Niamh Casey, a lawyer in the COE department of social justice who worked on the case, said: “You couldn’t thump an adult. Why could you thump a child? It’s equal protection of the law. Whether you prosecute that is a completely different matter.”
Authorities in France, which is a signatory to the social charter, are bound to follow the decision, but they can decide how to do that, she said. “We would suggest it consider a prohibition on all forms of corporal punishment.”
The COE found France was in violation of the charter’s article 17, which requires signatories to “protect children and young persons against negligence, violence or exploitation”.
According to the ruling, the French government responded that the article did not expressly require general prohibition of corporal punishment. It cited a 1991 directive against corporal punishment in primary schools in France. The government also argued that while some court decisions had asserted a “right to smack”, criminal courts no longer cited that right.
Reacting to reports ahead of the ruling, France’s family minister Laurence Rossignol said she did not believe it was necessary to legislate on the issue of smacking.