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 U.S., 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 U.S. has also seen controversy around child beauty 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.
"We are talking about children who are only being judged on their appearance, and that is totally contrary to the development of a child," the French amendment's author, Chantal Jouanno, told The Associated Press.
"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 isn't attacking parents, saying that most moms don't 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 Wednesday.
He said that he has been in discussions with legislators about regulating such pageants, but wasn't 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 shouldn't be lumped in with pedophiles or other contest organizers who capitalize on children for profit.
"It's just little girls playing princess," he told the AP.
Still, he acknowledged that appearances are important, and said there's no point in pretending they're not, at any age.
"One day or another they will find themselves before this problem of physical appearance. ... A woman who has a nice appearance will find a job more easily, a job interview. These things are done based on physical appearance" even if we like to think they aren't, he said.
He says that if the law is approved, he will focus his energies on children's talent contests called "Mini-Stars" that he has already been conducting.