A Wave of Femicides Forces France to Confront a Domestic Violence Crisis
PARIS—Helene de Ponsay hadn’t heard the word “femicide” until April, when police found the body of her older sister, Marie-Alice Dibon, stuffed in a suitcase, thrown into the Oise River. The 53-year-old Dibon, a pharmaceuticals and cosmetics specialist, was the 51st woman in France to be murdered by her partner in 2019. More than 50 deaths later, the word is hard to miss: in headlines, in presidential speeches, and plastered on buildings in cities across the country. Women’s rights advocates are now calling for femicide to be inscribed into the penal code.
“How shameful that it took until now,” de Ponsay said in an interview. “If we don’t define something, it doesn’t exist. Our society has systematically denied this reality.”
De Ponsay is part of a growing movement trying to force a reckoning with the startling scale of violence against women in France. According to government statistics, a woman is murdered by her partner every three days, the third-highest rate in Western Europe, after Germany and Switzerland. Every year, 220,000 women claim to be victims of domestic violence, but experts say that many cases go unreported. “There’s finally this enormous realization,” de Ponsay, a member of the organization “Feminicides,” which seeks to draw attention to domestic violence, said. “I’m relieved.”
Indeed, the issue has been thrust to the forefront of French politics. In early September, Marlene Schiappa, the secretary for gender equality, invited “engaged actors”—psychologists, women’s-health specialists and feminist activists—to participate in a three-month consultation on how to best tackle rampant domestic violence. She pledged to improve enforcement of preexisting protections, such as requiring men convicted of abuse or under a restraining order to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet, and announced an audit of police precincts across the country, where many women’s allegations have been reportedly ignored. By Nov. 25, women will be able to file a complaint directly at the hospital, and in 2020, 1,000 additional beds will made available at shelters across the country, among other measures. The government also envisions a tightening of parental-authority laws, such as revoking custody as soon as an investigation into spousal murder is opened.
But it’s proposals like that last one over parental custody that make many women’s rights advocates balk, and call the government’s response too little, too late. “It’s absurd that a man needs to kill to lose the right to his children,” said Muriel Salmona, a psychiatrist who specializes in trauma and the president of Traumatic Memory and Victimology, a nonprofit in the Paris suburb of Bourg-la-Reine that focuses on violence against women. “That’s where we are as a society. Why not restrict parental authority the first time a woman files a complaint?”
Even with the new push for protection, she laments a lack of political will to confront a “culture of impunity” that has allowed so many women to die at the hands of their partners or ex-partners. “We’re asking for ways to prevent men from engaging in violence,” she added.
Although she is glad to see the new measures, Salmona considers Schiappa’s consultation a way for the government to buy time on an issue that “requires urgent attention.” She and other specialists have been developing tools for years, and France could draw from countries with more robust measures for protecting women rather than reinventing the wheel. Canada, for example, has developed in-depth questionnaires to help assess a woman’s risk level for domestic violence, which France could replicate and deploy. “It costs nothing to convene working groups, but they can tell the public they’re doing something,” she said.
“We still have this narrative of a ‘crime of passion.’ But nobody kills out of love.”
Concrete steps—like organizing extensive training for police and medical professionals, or specialized medical and legal units—would require far more resources. But public services are already cash-strapped; emergency-room personnel, for example, have organized strikes for months to protest insufficient funds and poor working conditions. Although the government has been publicizing a hotline for domestic violence, it’s not an emergency number, and simply redirects victims to existing services that haven’t benefited from additional support.
The new measures, then, are more punitive than preventive. But critics say the work needs to start before a man is violent. Doctors lack training in trauma, and police systematically brush off women’s allegations. “Auditing precincts won’t solve the problem,” said Fatima Benomar, a founding member of Nous Toutes, an organization created in 2018 to address sexual violence. “Women arrive traumatized; they’re often incoherent. And police just don’t know how to deal with it, or they doubt the women’s stories, so they ignore their complaints.”
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,’” she said, even when they show threatening text messages or emails.
The onus of protection, Salmona said, lands on the victim, not the abuser. “Why is it on her to flee her home, to hide in a shelter for months, while her violent partner roams free?”
When Emmanuel Macron took office in 2017, he called gender equality the “great national cause” of his presidency. But two years in, it’s a minor government portfolio, with the state’s smallest budget. His predecessor, Francois Hollande, devoted an entire ministry to the issue of women’s rights. Macron downgraded that ministry to a secretariat, and cut its funding by 25 percent, or 7.5 million euros. “It’s a communications ploy,” Benomar said of Macron’s declaration of gender equality as the “great national cause.”
Whereas Hollande’s gender equality minister, Laurence Rossignol, had a background in activism and maintained close ties to grassroots groups, Schiappa has focused on women in the labor force, while clashing with activists during her time in office. “She’s cut ties with certain groups. She publicly accuses us of diffusing false information. She’s hostile to our movement and prefers to keep things within the state,” Benomar said. “It’s very consistent with the whole Macronian model,” she added, representative of a president who, to many in France, has failed to live up to his lofty promises and instead been opaque and out of touch.
For de Ponsay, violence against women cannot be divorced from a system that privileges men’s voices over women’s—globally, but in France in particular. The #MeToo movement, for example, was much slower to gain traction here than in the U.S.; sexual assault allegations against high-profile film producers, and even members of the current government, slipped beneath the radar. “None of this is that surprising when you see that in business, in government, it’s men who are in charge, who write all the laws,” de Ponsay said. “France is still a society that’s very anchored in a patriarchal model. There’s a lot of work to be done, to educate people from childhood that this is unacceptable.”
Without that, she fears, a culture of excuses will persist. “We still have this narrative of a ‘crime of passion,’” she said. “But nobody kills out of love.”
Karina Piser is a journalist based in Paris. She was a 2017-2019 recipient of the Institute of Current World Affairs fellowship, focusing on French debates over national identity. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy and The Nation, among other publications. She was previously an associate editor at World Politics Review.