France’s high rate of femicides pushes activists to urge change

On the morning of September 6, a 38-year-old mother of four left her apartment in Montélimar, in south-eastern France, to go to work. A few minutes later, his neighbors, hearing screams, came out of their apartments to find his lifeless body in the hallway.

In that brief interval, the woman’s ex-husband stabbed her around 30 times in the throat, neck, back and arms while her children, aged 4 to 15, watched, according to local media. . One had tried in vain to intervene. The ex-husband, who prosecutors say was driven by extreme jealousy and rage, is now awaiting trial for murder.

The attack was shocking but, alas, not surprising. Despite its reputation as a nation of romance, gallantry and love, France has one of the highest spousal murder rates in Western Europe.

So far this year, at least 94 women have been killed by a partner or ex-partner – a grim number that grows by one every three days on average, according to Femicide by Companion or Ex, an activist group that documents such murders in France. The actual number, according to the group, is likely higher.

Women in black take part in a demonstration against femicide on Saturday in front of Paris city hall.

(Geoffroy Van der Hasselt / AFP / Getty Images)

“We’re sure there are more,” said a woman who identified herself as Julia, one of four members of the organization, who work under a pseudonym for security reasons.

Last year, 102 women in France died at the hands of their former or current boyfriend or husband, according to the French Interior Ministry. This was a drop from 146 in 2019, a drop that campaigners attribute to the COVID-19 pandemic, as men who kill their partner often do so as she tries to leave, and during lockdowns, women found it much more difficult to leave their homes.

With people moving freely again, activists expect the death toll in 2021 to approach the previous average of 130 per year.

The government of President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly pledged to lower this figure. At the end of 2019, he announced a series of new measures to tackle the problem, including school programs to raise awareness of gender-based violence, the hiring of specially trained social workers in police stations, electronic bracelets to monitor attackers, increased capacity to deal with domestic violence. shelters and confiscation of firearms from violent spouses.

The $ 400 million package of new measures added to relatively robust laws against femicide, the term used by France to refer to spousal murder. But critics say these laws are applied unevenly, thwarting any real improvement in the situation.

“France specializes in passing laws that they don’t apply, especially when it comes to women,” said Julia. ” To apply the law. It’s very easy. To apply the law.

Woman holding a flower and a portrait at a demonstration

A woman takes part in a silent march in northern France on June 12 in memory of “Aurélie L.”, who was allegedly killed by her partner.

(Denis Charlet / AFP / Getty Images)

The lack of progress became a gruesome concern earlier this year with two high-profile murders that forced the government to renew pledges to act more vigorously.

The first took place on May 4, when Chahinez Boutaa, a 31-year-old mother of three, was hit in the legs and burned alive by her husband in the middle of a street in broad daylight near Bordeaux airport, in the southwest of France. The husband had been convicted of domestic violence less than a year earlier and sentenced to 18 months in prison, half of which suspended.

He had repeatedly violated an order not to have contact with his wife. But she had not received an emergency phone, and it had not been equipped with an electronic monitoring bracelet – “great tools that too often remain in the drawers” in the police stations, lamented the minister of Justice Éric Dupond-Moretti after the attack.

The second murder took place less than three weeks later when Stephanie de Vincenzo, 22, was stabbed to death on a street in eastern France. She had filed several complaints with the authorities after her partner threatened to kill her. He was fitted with an electronic bracelet but managed to remove it.

A government investigation after Boutaa’s death revealed serious flaws in the way authorities track attackers. He also noted a lack of coordination between the police and the judiciary.

In response, the authorities pledged to prioritize complaints of domestic violence and to designate a contact person in each police station. The French hotline against domestic violence, previously open only during working hours on weekdays, now offers a 24-hour service. The authorities have also announced the creation of a database that the authorities can consult to assess the level of threat. of an offender, including information such as previous convictions and possession of weapons.

But women’s advocates say such measures fail to address the root of the problem: a sexist, backward-looking mindset that’s deeply ingrained in French society. It is even at work in the language, for example with the sentence “my wife” meaning both “my wife” and “my wife”.

“Too many men think their wives are their property,” said Hélène de Ponsay, vice-president of the National Union of Feminicide Families, a support group for families of victims of domestic violence. “As long as men think they can decide what their wife does, what she wears, who she sees, what she likes, where she works, whether she works or not, they will be their possession, and that must change. “

Such notions have been enshrined in French law for more than a century, said Anne Bouillon, a lawyer specializing in women’s rights and domestic violence. According to article 324 of the Napoleon Code of 1810, if a husband found his wife in their marital bed with another man, killing her was considered excusable.

“For decades our legislation was discriminatory – men and women were not equal,” Bouillon said. “As long as the relationship is unequal, [where] one dominates the other, which carries the germ of violence.

Section 324 was repealed in 1975, but the spur of the moment “crime of passion” argument often still prevails. Most feminicides are not such a thing, said Jane Monckton Smith, professor of public protection at the University of Gloucestershire in England and an expert in femicide.

“Research tells us that the vast majority of these homicides are planned, but they use the crime of passion narrative, and people understand that,” she said. “It’s been around for so long. It is in the bone marrow of our western culture and cultures across the world.

“These killings are happening because women are trying to hand over control to men – they are questioning their control,” she said. “This is how over 90% of these homicides happen, and yet we will always believe … that she did something to provoke it.”

In contrast, in a closely watched trial in central France earlier this year, Valérie Bacot, 40, was convicted of murder for shooting her husband and burying his body after what she described. like decades of abuse. Despite the conviction, the jury sentenced her to an already-served sentence after prosecutors said she posed no public threat and a petition in support of her collected more than 700,000 signatures.

Some of the abuse she suffered was psychological, the woman said. Experts say it’s important to understand that the exercise of coercive control is often a precursor to deadly violence.

“We need better training so that [the police] don’t take bruises as the only evidence of abuse, ”said De Ponsay, whose sister, Marie-Alice Dibon, was killed by her partner in April 2019 after 15 years of coercive control. “One of the reasons I got involved in this battle was that I really wanted people to understand that even if there is no blue, you can be in great danger.”

Woman arriving at court flanked by two relatives

Valérie Bacot, center, arrives at a courthouse in central France, where she was convicted of killing her husband after what she called decades of abuse.

(Laurent Cipriani / Associated Press)

Women also sometimes unknowingly report domestic violence to male agents who are abusers themselves – a problem in many places, said Rachel Louise Snyder, an American domestic violence expert and author of ” No Visible Bruises ”. “The rates of domestic violence in the police service are much higher than the civilian rates,” she said.

Activists say we need to educate those who work in law enforcement and the justice system.

“A lot of it comes down to education and training,” Snyder said. “A lot of good people do a bad job because they don’t have the knowledge and the training. “

The French government is working to change that. Earlier this year, Monckton Smith was invited to make a presentation to the French National Gendarmerie – “they have been very receptive,” she said – and police, judges and social workers across France are receiving more and more special instructions on how to deal with both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence and coercive control.

Bouillon said she sees a difference.

“It’s never enough, but it’s progressing,” she said. “People are working there. … This is going in the right direction.

El-Faizy is special envoy.

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