Breastfeeding in the public space: when will the “legal vacuum” end?

In a Pôle emploi agency in 2019at Disneyland Paris in 2021… In recent years, there has been no shortage of examples of young mothers being asked to go and breastfeed their child elsewhere than in public places. The most recent dates back to June 2022, when a Louvre agent asked a woman to go breastfeed in the toilets rather than in one of the galleries, reports Le Parisien.

The management of the Parisian museum certainly evokes a “misinterpretation of the rules” from this agent and specifies that the internal regulations do not prohibit breastfeeding in the rooms, according to the newspaper. But according to associations for the defense of breastfeeding, this type of incident shows that in France, breastfeeding in public is not an acquired right.

While it is not prohibited by law, it is also not explicitly permitted. A “legal void” which several associations are tackling by launching a petition to the attention of the government to protect breastfeeding in public spaces, in the run-up to World Breastfeeding Week, from October 17 to 23.

A practice often associated with sexual exhibition

Disapproving glances, remarks, even a ban on breastfeeding… «There are regular incidents that put nursing mothers in difficulty in public spaces.denounces Dr. Dominique Leyronnas, neonatologist pediatrician and co-president of CoFam (French Coordination for Breastfeeding). “I don’t think the fear of being looked down upon deters mothers from breastfeeding, but it can cause some kind of discomfort”continues the doctor, for whom there is in France “a bad look at breastfeeding.”

This practice is indeed often associated with sexual exhibition, defined in the penal code as following: “Sexual exhibition is constituted if the explicit commission of a sexual act, real or simulated, is imposed in the sight of others, in a place accessible to the public gaze.”

“We must give back this possibility of breastfeeding as of right when the child claims, regardless of the place”, argues Dominique Leyronnas. A group of associations, including CoFam, is therefore appealing to elected officials and the government to put in place a legislative framework to protect breastfeeding in the public space and make it a right.

Two bills to this effect have already been tabled, but have remained blocked at the door of the Bourbon Palace. CoFam, which has reached 42,000 signatures on its petition and is aiming for 50,000, wants to relaunch the legislative machine.

Creation of a “crime of obstruction of breastfeeding”

Fiona Lazaar, former MP (LREM) for Val d’Oise, had filed a bill in June 2021 creating a “crime of obstructing breastfeeding” in the public space. This proposal was intended to “to ensure that a woman who chooses to breastfeed is protectedexplains the former deputy. The goal was to punish someone who wants to forbid a woman to breastfeed. And to show women that the law is with them, so they don’t have to hide in unsanitary toilets to breastfeed their child.”

She also says that she received “dozens of messages” at the end of this bill, mothers or relatives of nursing mothers testifying to having been victims of reproachful remarks or looks in a public place.

“The goal was to […] show women that the law is with them, so that they don’t have to hide in unsanitary toilets to breastfeed their child.”
Fiona Lazaar, former MP (LREM)

The text has never been placed on the agenda of the National Assembly and the end of the legislature in June 2022 has ruled out any possibility that it will be.

For Dominique Leyronnas, “It’s a shame to bring a legislative process back to this single issue of breastfeeding in the public space”. The co-president of CoFam believes more in a text which, in addition to addressing the issue of breastfeeding in the public space, legislates more generally on the duration of maternity leave or the training of caregivers.

A another billfiled in March 2021 by Bérengère Poletti, former deputy (LR) for the Ardennes, goes in this direction. “The text provides for the inclusion in the criminal code that breastfeeding in public does not constitute an offence, that it is not sexual exhibition», summarizes Anne-Laure Blin, MP (LR) for Maine-et-Loire and among the co-signatories of this bill.

The text suggests «clarify the situation of women breastfeeding a child” under the penal code «and to prevent any initiation of prosecution” about breastfeeding in public. It is also proposed to sanction with a fine of 1,500 euros a ban or attempted ban on breastfeeding a child.

But here again, the change of legislature and the renewal of the National Assembly have rendered this bill obsolete, which Anne-Laure Blin now wishes to resume. “I am working on this issue in order to put this subject back on the agendaassures the deputy. I would really like the group Les Républicains to take advantage of its parliamentary niche so that we can change things on this subject.

Feminization of the political class

Specific legislation on breastfeeding in the public space is therefore now in the hands of re-elected or newly elected parliamentarians, pushed by associations for the defense of breastfeeding. “I am still quite confident, slips the former deputy Fiona Lazaar, the president of the National Assembly is a woman [Yaël Braun-Pivet (Renaissance), ndlr]

The feminization of the political class would also allow a better consideration of the subject, wants to believe Fiona Lazaar. “It’s not just a subject for women, but they are still more aware of it.”

But the issue of breastfeeding remains, in general, the subject of much debate. It is certainly for this reason that the MPs and associations questioned insist on leaving the choice to women to breastfeed or not. Far from wanting to impose this practice, legislation protecting the right to breastfeed in public should simply “enable women who wish to breastfeed to do so in the best conditions”summarizes Anne-Laure Blin.

Other avenues can also be explored. Dominique Leyronnas cites the possibility for public places, such as cafes and bars, “to welcome and encourage breastfeeding women” for example by affixing stickers on their fronts.

“We need training for people who have to receive the public in establishments”, raises Fiona Lazaar. A good idea, if we are to believe Le Parisien, which specified in the cases of Disneyland Paris in 2021 and the Louvre museum last June that the organizations had both recognized an error by their agents. In the absence of a law, a reminder of the instructions to staff could therefore advance the cause.

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