Originally appeared on The Fletcher School’s Gender Analysis & Women’s Leadership blog, February 2020.
France’s deeply sexist and misogynist society has caught up with it, as record femicide rates continue to creep up. Femicide is defined as the murder of a woman, and is often perpetrated by current or former partners. Agence France Presse reports 116 femicides in 2019, though advocacy group Femicides by Companions or Ex estimates the figure is closer to 138. If these numbers are accurate, that would mean that one woman is killed every three days. Importantly, women aged 65 and over make up about a quarter of all femicide victims, but have largely been left out of the conversation. Beyond the threat to their personal and economic security, ageism rears its ugly head.
Law enforcement’s lax attitude and the government’s downplaying of the chronic issue are other key contributors to vulnerable women’s silencing or further injustice when pleas are heard but ignored. Femicide is not recognized in the French criminal code, but Marlène Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality, said the recognition is being discussed. In the face of growing violence, French feminists are calling for a major cultural shift.
Breadth and Depth of Femicide Rates
In western Europe, France is among the countries with the highest rate of women killed by their partner, and around 219,000 women are victims of domestic abuse every year. But it’s difficult to know to what extent elderly women are affected, because the poll only surveyed women between the ages of 18–75 years old.  This lack of statistics has led some to refer to older women as the “forgotten victims” of domestic violence. As is common in cases of abuse, perpetrators use manipulation tactics to convince victims their treatment is their fault, and many older women are found to have been trapped in this abusive cycle for decades.
Furthermore, framing by authorities and the media have tended to misclassify their deaths as mercy killings or suicide pacts. Other cases have found perpetrators justifying killings by describing difficulties in caring for an ailing partner, which has generated debate around the country’s lack of support for older couples. While age has been a factor in a slew of cases, it’s too easy to make it seem like a leading cause. The very public death of 21-year-old Salome, found disfigured after a violent attack by her partner in the street with eyewitness testimony, was recorded as the 100th femicide last year.
Speech Acts Uphold Historical Gender Inequality
Advocates point to historical allusions in French language and the 1804 Napoleonic code that serve to indenture women and ensure gender inequality on a legal basis. Moreover, grammar rules give the masculine form of a noun precedence over the female, denoting it as superior. Many have petitioned for a transition to a more inclusive, gender-neutral version, which the Academie Francaise has stated it no plans to cede to, calling the request an “aberration.”
Language also tends to romanticize the act of femicide, whether harkening it to a “crime passionnel” (a crime of passion), implying victims were bearers of their fate for allowing partners to be so in love, it drove them to kill. Sensationalist articles reporting the murders also tend to minimize the crime through distasteful humor. Non-profit Prenons La Une has fought hard to change click-bait-y narrative arcs by providing journalists with tools to help improve they way they write about violence against women.
Law Enforcement Failures Under A Microscope
Poor police response to reports of abuse have been pinpointed as a leading cause of women’s fear in coming forward, as well as the reason so many murders have gone under-investigated if acknowledged at all. Inaction or brushing off complaints as “private affairs” falling outside their jurisdiction has meant the backlog of countless cases, which could have been prevented as many victims reported calling stations to file their case. One example is Julie Douib, who was shot at her home in Corsica, and had a few days earlier warned police her partner owned a gun. When she complained that she had been forced to sleep in her car after being kicked out of her apartment half-naked, the police told her that she could not retrieve her belongings because the lease was not in her name. Another injustice came in the murder of a 57-year-old woman who tried to report that her husband had threatened to kill her and asked for help to safely retrieve her belongings from their shared home. The officer refused, saying it was “not part of the penal procedure.”
According to article 15–3 of the French penal code, police are legally required to follow through on all filed complaints. “Women tell me that police say, ‘Come back with proof, or a medical certificate,’” said Muriel Salmona, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma as the president of Traumatic Memory and Victimology, a nonprofit that focuses on violence against women, even when they show threatening text messages or emails. “Our system doesn’t work to protect women,” Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet told French TV channel LCI. While the French criminal code dictates that police are legally required to follow through on filed complaints, a review of 88 cases of marital murders or attempted killings of partners or ex-partners, revealed that for 65% of them the French authorities had been alerted, according to a recent report published by France’s justice ministry.
Government Intervention: Too Little, Too Late?
Last November, Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe launched a summit to tackle the issues of domestic violence and killings by partners. He acknowledged, “French women have been buried under our indifference” As he announced the measures, he said domestic violence did not happen in a context “where wrongs are shared: it is often a process [where women find themselves in] a sexist grip, very much entrenched in our mentalities and practices, so much so that some men are used to [acting with] impunity.”
Emergency measures include adding 1,000 shelter places and emergency accommodation, conducting an in-depth audit of 400 police stations to see how women’s complaints have been handled, with recommendations on strengthening systems in place. Police are also required to register every complaint with judges with experience dealing with these types of cases within 72 hours. Phillipe has also said €360m would be released in the fight against domestic violence and femicide, and that the complaints procedure would be simplified. Rules covering doctor-patient confidentiality would be lifted so health professionals could report suspected abuse cases. Additionally, the confiscation of firearms held by anyone who is reported to the police as violent, new guidelines for police and gendarmes to evaluate danger, and the recruitment of extra police staff trained to deal with domestic disputes were put forth.
Lastly, a new clause has approved the use of electronic tagging of those convicted of domestic violence or under a restraining order. The government also envisions a tightening of parental-authority laws, such as revoking custody as soon as an investigation into spousal murder is opened.
“Complaints ignored, women killed,” read the black block letters on one protester’s sign. While anti-femicide advocates continue to roam dark streets pasting posters honoring the murdered women, they’re encouraged by the new national conversation and government measures underway, which mark a departure from decades of denial.
Written by: Adriana Lamirande, F21