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 adults — 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, contest organizers, or anyone who ‘‘encourages or tolerates children’s access to these competitions’’ — would face up to two years in prison and $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 beauty pageants and reality shows such as ‘‘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,’’ said Chantal Jouanno, the French amendment’s author.
‘‘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 is not attacking parents, saying that most moms do not 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 on Wednesday.
He said that he has been in discussions with legislators about regulating such pageants, but was not 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 should not be lumped in with pedophiles or other contest organizers who capitalize on children for profit.
‘‘It’s just little girls playing princess,’’ he said.
He said that if the law is approved, he will focus on children’s talent contests called ‘‘Mini-Stars’’ that he has already been conducting.
The senators debated whether to come up with a softer measure limiting beauty pageants, but in the end decided on an overall ban.