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France may soon become the first country to outlaw verbal violence within marriages. The French government says psychological abuse is often a first step toward physical abuse. The law would make such abuse a criminal offense.

Eleanor Beardsley has this story from Paris.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: The proposed law covers every kind of insult, including repeated rude remarks about a partner's appearance, false allegations of infidelity, and threats of physical violence. Some media reports have made light of the legislation, joking that screaming at your wife could now make you a felon in France. But parliamentarian Martine Billard, who helped draft the bill, says psychological abuse is a serious matter.

Mr. MARTINE BILLARD (Parliamentarian, France): (Through translator) There are situations where the man constantly degrades the woman with his remarks and destroys her, little by little. And this is often done in front of the children.

BEARDSLEY: Billard rejects critics' charges that under the new law, couples could be hauled in for having an argument. She says it must be proven that the abuse is repeated, and done with the intention of destroying the victim's human dignity. France already has a law against psychological harassment in the workplace. This one simply puts the home front on an equal par, says Billard. A woman dies every two days at the hands of her husband or partner in France. The French government recently declared ending violence against women a national cause. Several chilling television spots warn viewers about domestic violence while giving a new telephone hotline to report it.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: One ad shows viewers how kids learn violence from their parents. Two young children are playing dress-up and having tea. The viewer sees only their legs under the table, wearing grown-up shoes. When the tiny wife mistakenly spills some tea in front of her tiny husband, an adult scenario unfolds.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

(Soundbite of slapping)

BEARDSLEY: French Prime Minister Francois Fillon recently unveiled a panoply of new measures to fight conjugal violence.

Prime Minister FRANCOIS FILLON (France): (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: And this new law will allow us to react to insidious situations where the violence leaves the victims destroyed psychologically but with no physical trace, said Fillon.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: It's late afternoon at a women's shelter in northeast Paris. A handful of mothers and young children hang out in a small living room. The shelter provides a temporary escape and counseling for women abused by their partners.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: But shelter director Viviane Monnier says she fears the new law, because it also applies to men, will end up being used in a perverse manner.

Ms. VIVIANE MONNIER (Shelter Director, France): (Through translator) 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.

BEARDSLEY: The bill will likely pass the French parliament in February. The government says the law will be in place within six months. France will soon find out whether banning psychological abuse helps to diminish domestic violence.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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