PARIS -- Facing growing fears of "hypersexual" young girls, the French Parliament's upper house voted Wednesday to end beauty pageants for those younger than 16.
The Senate passed the new ban, 197-146, as an amendment to a larger bill aimed at increasing gender equality. The measure now goes to the lower house, the National Assembly, for discussion and a vote.
Pageants are popular in smaller towns across France, though far less frequent and less intense than in the United States. And France has no equivalent of U.S. reality shows such as "Toddlers & Tiaras" and its spinoff, "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," that feature very young contestants.
Still, the intense focus on beauty in France, combined with a surge of images of sexualized, prepubescent girls, has raised fears that the pageants could take on the over-the-top quality of U.S. contests.
"It is extremely destructive for a girl between the age of 6 and 12 to hear her mother say that what's important for her is to be beautiful," Chantal Jouanno, the ban's champion, said Wednesday. "We are fighting to say: What counts is what they have in their brains."
Ms. Jouanno, a former junior minister for environment and a conservative senator representing Paris, wrote a report in 2011 on the "hypersexualization" of children. The report was commissioned by the health minister in response to public outrage over a photo display in Paris Vogue that featured underage girls in sexy clothes and postures, wearing high heels, eye shadow, red lipstick and painted fingernails. The episode drew attention to the increasing use of very young girls in fashion photography and advertisements.
France has a plethora of contests in which parents can easily enroll their children online. Two of them -- Mini Miss and Graines de Miss (Seeds of Miss) -- organize annual beauty pageants of more than 20 contestants, ages 6 to 13, in various cities.
The French pageants do have some sense of restraint.
Some prohibit bathing suit competitions and advertise the contests with photos of little girls dressed up more like fairy-tale princesses than as youthful femmes fatales. A recent winner of Mini Miss appeared in a white gown, but with her crown askew and little obvious makeup. Her long sparkling earrings seemed rather too large for the slender little girl.
Opponents of the ban protested that the penalties were too severe: As much as two years in prison and a $40,000 fine for anyone who "helps, encourages or tolerates" children's participation in such contests.
Some pageant organizers said they were frustrated by the suggestion that they were corrupting girls. Maud Chevalier, who started Graines de Miss in 2001, barred young candidates from wearing heels more than 1.4 inches high, short dresses, wigs, makeup and swimsuits.
"I wanted to organize a contest which respected the child," Ms. Chevalier in an interview. She said the ban showed how "misinformed people are about beauty contests. They look at beauty contests on TV and in the U.S., where contests aren't adapted to children. They think that children parade on a stage to look like a Barbie."
Her own interpretation is quite different. "Children fight against stage fright by wearing a princess dress and [we] present them at microphone," she said. "In our contests," she also said, "girls are princesses for a day; they make friends with others."