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 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 United States, 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 United States has also seen controversy around child 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.