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

In a Pôle emploi agency in 2019, in 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 in places other than public spaces. The latest dates back to June 2022, when a Louvre agent asked a woman to go to the bathroom instead of in one of the galleries, reports Le Parisien.

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

Although not prohibited by law, it is not explicitly permitted either. A “legal void” that several associations are attacking by launching a petition for the Government’s attention to protect breastfeeding in public spaces as World Breastfeeding Week approaches, from October 17 to 23 next year.

A practice often associated with sexual exhibition

Disapproving looks, remarks, even a ban on breastfeeding… There are regular incidents that put nursing mothers in trouble in the public space.condemns Dr. Dominique Leyronnas, neonatologist pediatrician and co-president of CoFam (French coordination for breastfeeding). “I don’t think the fear of being looked down on prevents mothers from breastfeeding, but it can cause some kind of discomfort”continues the doctor, for who is in France “a bad look at breastfeeding.”

Indeed, this practice is often associated with sexual exhibition, defined in the Criminal Code as follows: “Sexual exhibition is constituted if the explicit commission of a sexual act, real or simulated, is forced in the sight of others in a place accessible to the public gaze.”

“We must give back this opportunity to breastfeed as a right when the child makes a claim, regardless of place”, argues Dominique Leyronnas. A group of associations, including CoFam, are therefore appealing to elected officials and the government to introduce a legal framework to protect breastfeeding in public spaces and make it a right.

Two bills to this effect have already been introduced, 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 lactation”

Fiona Lazaar, former Member of Parliament (LREM) for Val d’Oise, had tabled a bill in June 2021 for a “crime of obstructing breastfeeding” in public spaces. This proposal was intended for “to ensure that a woman who chooses to breastfeed is protectedexplains the former deputy. The goal was to punish someone who will 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 got “dozens of messages” at the end of this bill, mothers or relatives of nursing mothers testify to having been subjected to reproachful remarks or appearances in a public place.

“The goal was to […] show women that the law is with them so they don’t have to hide in unsanitary toilets to breastfeed their child.”

Fiona Lazaar, former MP (LREM)

The text has never been put on the agenda of the National Assembly, and the end of the legislature in June 2022 has ruled out any possibility of it being so.

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

Another bill, presented in March 2021 by Bérengère Poletti, former deputy (LR) for the Ardennes, goes in this direction. “The text stipulates that it is included in the penal code that breastfeeding in public is not 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 for women who breastfeed a child” according to the Criminal 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 too, the change of legislature and the renewal of the National Assembly have made this bill obsolete, which Anne-Laure Blin now wants to resume. “I am working on this issue to put this issue back on the agendaassures the deputy. I would really like the Les Républicains group to take advantage of its parliamentary niche so that we can change things in this area.

Feminization of the political class

Specific legislation on breastfeeding in public spaces is therefore now in the hands of re-elected or newly elected parliamentarians, pressured by associations in defense of breastfeeding. “I am still quite confident, throws 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 for a better consideration of the subject, Fiona Lazaar would think. “It’s not just a topic for women, but they’re increasingly aware of it.”

But the issue of breastfeeding in general is still the subject of much debate. It is precisely for this reason that the MPs and associations interviewed insist on leaving the choice to women whether to breastfeed or not. Far from imposing this practice, legislation protecting the right to breastfeed in public should simply “enabling women who wish to breastfeed to do so in the best conditions”sums up Anne-Laure Blin.

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

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

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