Psychological violence a criminal offence in France

image captionCritics of the new bill say psychological violence is difficult to prove

The French parliament has approved a law that makes psychological violence a criminal offence.

This means that couples who insult each other repeatedly could now be charged and face up to three years in prison.

The law is a part of a number of measures that aim to protect victims from domestic abuse.

Critics of the law say that it will be very difficult to define what constitutes psychological violence.

The law defines mental violence as "repeated acts which could be constituted by words or other machinations, to degrade one's quality of life and cause a change to one's mental or physical state".

"We have introduced an important measure here, which recognises psychological violence, because it isn't just blows (that hurt) but also words," Nadine Morano, the minister for family affairs, told the lower house of parliament.

Those found guilty of breaking the new law will face up to three years in jail and a 75,000 euro (£60,840) fine.

"The judge could (also) take into consideration letters, SMSs or repetitive messages, because one knows that psychological violence is made up of insults," Ms Morano said.

Some critics of the new bill say the crime will be very difficult to prove. They also criticise the government for getting involved in private matters like arguments and fights between married or cohabiting couples.

Even supporters of the bill have concerns about how courts could prosecute a crime for which there is no physical evidence.

Psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen is an authority on psychological violence. She told the BBC when the law was proposed earlier this year that she was "cautious" about the new law because she feared it might be easily misused.

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

Men and women

Both men and women are protected by the law, however the new bill is aimed mostly at protecting women, who are the main victims of domestic abuse in France.

According to government figures, 675,000 women have suffered violent attacks over the past two years, with 166 women murdered in 2007 and 156 in 2008.

Killings arising from domestic violence accounts for 20% of all murders in France. Ms Morano said the main abuse helpline for women in France received 90,000 calls a year.

"Of these, 84% concern psychological violence," she said.

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