'A culture of domestic violence': France’s femicide problem

Reuters/Regis Duvignau | French actor Julie Gayet attends with families of victims and activists a rally against "femicide", gender-based violence targeted at women, in Paris, France, July 6, 2019.

Seventy-five women have been killed by their current or former partners in France so far in 2019. As Spain leads several European countries in the fight to lower femicide rates, why is France so behind?


Seventy-five women have already become victims of femicide this year in France --that’s more than one new victim every three days. Fifty-three of those victims were murdered in their own homes.

“These aren’t family dramas, or crimes of passion,” insists @Feminicide, the Facebook page that has been tracking the number of femicides in France since January. “This is domestic violence perpetrated by frustrated men who have given themselves a license to kill. These are systematic assassinations rooted in a problem with our society, and in a patriarchal education system that gives men the right to possess and dispose of women and children.”

Femicide, or the murder of women, usually by a partner or family member, is not a new phenomenon in France. The French Interior Ministry reported 130 femicides in 2017, a decrease from the 142 reported in 2015. But if the pattern of domestic violence continues at its current rate, France is in danger of ending this year with over 150 victims.

The most recent data from 2015 shows that France had more femicides per year than the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, and Spain -- though it fared better than Germany, Switzerland, and several Eastern European nations. Shocked by the numbers from recent years, France’s gender equality minister Marlène Schiappa announced in October 2018 that the French government would launch five new measures to combat domestic violence, including a TV campaign, an online platform for reporting abuse, a GPS to help women locate shelters and safe houses, and increased funding for a domestic violence hotline. And following last Saturday’s anti-femicide protests in Paris, Schiappa pledged to go even further with new reforms for 2019. With Spain boasting just 16 femicides this year, women’s rights organisations across France are putting pressure on the state to find a solution that works, and fast.

Role model

Spain is one of Europe’s biggest leaders in the fight against femicide, with several policies in place that gender equality activists argue France could learn from. Floriane Volt, a volunteer at the women’s rights organisation Women’s Foundation, points to the 10,000 emergency telephones that were installed across Spain. Only 3,000 of these phones have been produced in France, and although the presence of emergency phones reduced the number of femicides in Spain by 50%, Volt told FRANCE 24 that in France: “Hundreds of these devices never leave their boxes because some people don’t find them useful.”

France’s southern neighbour has also introduced the widespread use of electronic tracking bracelets which alert authorities as soon as the aggressor moves closer to the victim than the distance allowed. Armelle Le Bras-Chopard, French author and political scientist, confirms that like the emergency phones, these bracelets are not used nearly as extensively in France. “We only have half the number of bracelets that Spain has, and that is absolutely insufficient.”

Finally, Spanish courts grant more than ten times the number of protective or restraining orders than in France. “In Spain, courts grant approximately 20,000 protective orders a year, while the French judiciary only grants about 1,300, even though the Spanish population is inferior to that of France.” said Sophie Barre of the women’s rights organisation “Nous toutes” (All Women).

Legal bind

French lawyer and specialist in domestic violence Anne Bouillon adds that roughly half of all requests for protective orders in France are rejected, often because of a paradox in the law which permits judges to consider violence and the threat of danger as two separate offenses, both of which are necessary to issue a protective order. “The judge won’t grant a restraining order because they find that violence was committed but that the violence did not put the person in danger, or that the danger isn’t sufficient enough to warrant a protection order,” said Bouillon. “It makes no sense.”

Bouillon is part of a group of lawyers advocating for a modification of the law, which she says is a long process to make a simple change. Protesters at Saturday’s anti-femicide demonstration in Paris believe that better education of law enforcement officers is an important first step in making that process easier.

“Police refuse to listen to victims when they come forward. Or worse, they make inappropriate remarks, or blame the victim for what happened,” said Barre. “We need to systematically educate police on how to respond to domestic violence.”

In Spain, authorities have enforced a law that is overseen by magistrates who specialise in cases of domestic violence. The result? “Professionals are better educated and more efficient,” said Volt.

Ending a culture of violence

“There is a judicial and political culture that defends the aggressor instead of protecting the victim,” said Bouillon, who believes that the problem of femicide in France is rooted in an absence of victim awareness in a heavily male-dominated society.

“We need to do away with this idea of ‘acceptable violence’ it doesn’t exist,” she said. “Violence of any form is unacceptable, and we need to start protecting women from the very first threat. We can’t wait.”

Activists and protesters are calling for a host of new reforms, including the installation of domestic violence specialists in every police station in France and the creation of thousands of new shelters where abused women can seek refuge from their aggressors. However, few changes are likely to take place until greater attention and money is given to the cause.

“There is a gap between what is necessary and what is being proposed by the government,” said Barre. “The budget contains enough money to open a few hundred safe homes for women, when what we need is a few thousand. The number we have right now does not even respect European law.”

In Spain, the campaign against femicide began in the 1990s when Ana Orantes, a 60-year old victim of domestic violence who denounced her former husband on television, was beaten and burned alive by him just two weeks later. “It was like an electric shock for the country,” explained Barre. “After that, every time there was a new victim, all the media sources were talking about it. France needs to make femicide a bigger issue. When the crime is everywhere all the time, it puts pressure on the government to act.”

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