The French parliament has voted to make school bullying a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison, as MPs said society needed a wake-up call on the seriousness of children targeting their peers.
The proposed law was supported by Emmanuel Macron’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, Macron’s ruling coalition, as well as the right.
Blanquer said the law sent a strong message to society that “we will never accept the lives of our children being shattered”. As many as one in 10 French children are estimated to have been affected by bullying, and social networks are increasing the potential for public taunting and humiliation. Blanquer said the draft law was “a way of enforcing the values of the republic”.
The draft measure was approved by the lower house on Wednesday and will now go to the upper house, the Senate. It is expected to be adopted in February, giving France some of the harshest penalties for bullying in the world.
Erwan Balanant, the Brittany MP from the centrist MoDem (Democratic Movement) party who drafted the legislation, said the new law and high penalties was specifically a way to “engage with the whole of society”. He said it sent a strong message, and a “shock wave” through society to raise awareness on the devastating effects of bullying. He argued that the new legislation would help educate people on bullying and prevention.
“It’s not about sending children to prison,” Balanant stressed. “There is a justice system for minors, that takes into consideration the accused’s age and powers of discernment.” But he said that criminal law can set “the value system of a society”.
The new crime of “school bullying” applies to children and adults in schools and universities, including students as well as staff such as canteen service teams and break-time monitors. It would carry a maximum three-year jail term and a fine of up to €45,000 (£38,300). If a victim of school bullying kills themself, or attempts to, the maximum penalty could rise to 10 years and €150,000.
In reality, the law would be unlikely to result in a rush of children getting custodial sentences – instead there would be new, community schemes to raise awareness on bullying that could be proposed as alternatives. The legislation also increases resources for prevention and education, as well as improving the provisions for children to take part in community educational schemes about bullying. Some MPs argued that the risk of jail and a criminal record would serve chiefly as a deterrent.
Broadly, most of the right and centre have supported the bill. But some MPs on the left have criticised it as too repressive. “We are not in favour of criminalising minors and increasing repression,” said Michèle Victory, a Socialist MP.
Sabine Rubin, an MP from the leftwing party La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), called it an “illusionary and demagogic over-reaction”.
Other MPs questioned whether it would be effective. Bullying can already be prosecuted in France under laws criminalising harassment, opponents said.
Delphine Bagarry, a doctor and MP who was elected in 2017 under Macron’s centrist banner, but is no longer part of that parliamentary group, told the house that creating a new criminal offence was an inadequate response to the specific mechanics of bullying – “namely the powerful effect of groups” in targeting their peers – and the fact that bullying took place in every school, often by children without powers of discernment. She said that the law, by grabbing the spotlight, could weaken other crucial forms of action, such as the responsibility of headteachers to stamp out bullying.
Several bullying cases that have ended in tragedy have made headlines in France this year, including the suicide of a 14-year-old girl in the eastern Alsace region in October. The girl’s mother told local media that her daughter was subjected to racist and homophobic bullying, and was isolated and excluded by classmates. She was physically pushed and her possessions thrown on the ground.
Macron’s wife, Brigitte, who is a former teacher, has made combating bullying a focus of her charity work at the Élysée.