PARIS – Child beauty pageants may soon be banned in France, after a surprise vote in the French Senate that rattled the pageant industry and raised questions about how the French relate to girls' sexuality.
Such contests, and the made-up, dolled-up beauty queens they produce, have the power to both fascinate and repulse, and have drawn criticism in several countries. France, with its controlling traditions, appears to be out front in pushing an outright ban.
French legislators stopped short of approving a measure banning anyone under 16 from modeling products meant for grown-ups -- a sensitive subject in a country renowned for its fashion and cosmetics industries, and about to host Paris Fashion Week.
The proposed children's pageant amendment sprouted from a debate on a women's rights law. The legislation, approved by a vote of 197-146, must go to the lower house of parliament for further debate and another vote.
Its language is brief but sweeping: "Organizing beauty competitions for children under 16 is banned." Violators -- who could include parents, or contest organizers, or anyone who "encourages or tolerates children's access to these competitions" -- would face up to two years in prison and 30,000 euros ($40,000) in fines.
It doesn't specify whether it would extend to things like online photo competitions or pretty baby contests.
While child beauty pageants are not as common in France as in the U.S., girls get the message early on here that they are sexual beings, from advertising and marketing campaigns -- and even from department stores that sell lingerie for girls as young as 6.
The U.S. has also seen controversy around child beauty pageants and reality shows like "Toddlers & Tiaras." Such contests gripped the public imagination after the 1996 death of 6-year-old beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, as images of her splashed over national television and opened the eyes of many to the scope of the industry.
"We are talking about children who are only being judged on their appearance, and that is totally contrary to the development of a child," the French amendment's author, Chantal Jouanno, told The Associated Press.
"The question of the hyper-sexualization is deeper in the United States than in France, but the levees are starting to fall. Before we are hit by the wave, the point is to say very clearly: `Not here."'
She insisted she isn't attacking parents, saying that most moms don't realize the deeper societal problems the contests represent.
"When I asked an organizer why there were no mini-boy contests, I heard him respond that boys would not lower themselves like that," she said in the Senate debate.
Michel Le Parmentier, who says he has been organizing "mini-miss" pageants in France since 1989, passionately defended his business Wednesday.
He said that he has been in discussions with legislators about regulating such pageants, but wasn't expecting an overall ban. He says his contests forbid make-up and high heels and corporate sponsors, and focus on princess dresses and "natural beauty" -- and that he shouldn't be lumped in with pedophiles or other contest organizers who capitalize on children for profit.
"It's just little girls playing princess," he told the AP.
Still, he acknowledged that appearances are important, and said there's no point in pretending they're not, at any age.
"One day or another they will find themselves before this problem of physical appearance. ... A woman who has a nice appearance will find a job more easily, a job interview. These things are done based on physical appearance" even if we like to think they aren't, he said.
He says that if the law is approved, he will focus his energies on children's talent contests called "Mini-Stars" that he has already been conducting.
Annabelle Betemps, a guest house operator from the Alps, has entered her daughter in multiple pageants and lamented the harshness of the new law.
"We are hyper-disappointed," she said, describing the joys and friendships she and her daughter Barbara, now 13, have experienced thanks to pageants.
She said preparing children to present themselves on stage is a gift that helps them throughout life.
"You can't tell me that the Senate will solve the country's problems by banning the mini-miss pageants," she said, pleading with legislators to address other ills blighting children such as drug and alcohol addiction.
The senators debated whether to come up with a softer measure limiting such pageants, but in the end decided on an overall ban.
The Socialist government's equal rights minister, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, suggested Wednesday that the Socialists may push for a compromise measure when the bill goes to the lower house of Parliament in the coming weeks. The amendment's author said the proposed punishments might be lightened in later readings but expressed confidence that the ban would survive.
Concerns about child beauty pageants have popped up in several countries in recent years, but regulations are rare.
In 2006, Sweden, Denmark and Norway pulled out of a pan-European children's song contest and started their own to protest treatment of the contestants, as some were dressed like sexed-up dolls.
Controversy has also clouded adult beauty pageants. The 63rd edition of the Miss World pageant this month was moved to Bali after days of protests by ultraconservative Muslim groups confined the event to the only Hindu-dominated province in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.