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France Is in Denial About Domestic Violence

by Meaghan Beatley February 24, 2021

This piece was published in partnership between Foreign Policy and The Fuller Project.

What you need to know
  • In 2019, 146 women were killed by an intimate partner in France, making it one of the more dangerous countries for women in Europe, behind Northern Ireland and Germany.
  • The link between domestic violence and public violence is well documented. A US-study spanning from 1980 to 2006 found that domestic violence calls resulted in an average of 4,194 officer assaults and six deaths each year.
  • In France, there’s a misperception that gender violence is a remote issue or private family matter, often resulting in the lack of intervention by law enforcement.

When police knocked on her door in the early morning hours of Dec. 23, 2020, Valérie (a pseudonym to protect her identity) instinctively knew it had something to do with her ex-husband. The charming, funny, and seductive man she thought she had married in 2012 was, it turned out, a violent and paranoid master manipulator convinced of the world’s imminent end, for which he prepared by collecting canned food, weapons, and military radios—to communicate after the grids collapsed. Since she had left him in 2013, Frédérik Limol had repeatedly threatened to murder both her and their young daughter. According to Valérie’s lawyer, Wissam Bayeh, she reported him to the police at least three times, and, on other occasions, warned them that he was armed and dangerous. But, like a modern-day Cassandra, her complaints fell on deaf ears. “It was a permanent nightmare,” Bayeh said. “He’d sworn to poison her life, and he was succeeding.”

“Law enforcement suddenly discovered that violent men can be violent with everyone, not just with their wives or girlfriends”

Suzy Rojtman, spokesperson of the National Collective for the Rights of Women

In the wee hours of that dark December morning, Limol made good on his threats of violence. Only Valérie wasn’t the target. A few hours before police arrived at Valérie’s door to escort her and her daughter to safety, Limol had shot four police officers as they responded to a domestic violence distress call at his home a few miles outside the tiny village of Saint-Just in central France. “Law enforcement suddenly discovered that violent men can be violent with everyone, not just with their wives or girlfriends,” said Suzy Rojtman, spokesperson of the National Collective for the Rights of Women, a coalition of feminist groups, unions, and political parties.

A woman—Limol’s most recent partner—had been perched on the roof of their large stone house while he stalked the grounds below wearing a bulletproof vest and wielding an AR-15. He shot the responding officers, set the house ablaze, and fled in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Backup police found him later that morning less than a mile down the road. He had crashed his car into a tree, then turned a Glock pistol on himself. The woman survived the ordeal, but three police officers did not. 

The news quickly spread across France, where gun violence is relatively rare. The regional paper La Montagne—which, just two days prior, had run an entire article on a man’s conviction for firing two shots in the air—featured a single word on the front page of its Dec. 24 edition: “Carnage,” above a picture of a military helicopter hovering above the scene of the crime. National media ran headlines evoking the “war scene” at Saint-Just, soon to be echoed by international outlets, including the Guardian and the New York Times. The news channel TF1 ran a lengthy segment on the growing dangers facing law enforcement in France. 

In these Hollywood-esque scenes, the women Limol had terrorized were relegated to bit parts, their more mundane stories of intimate partner abuse eclipsed by the brazen act of public violence that followed. “What started this violence against the police was domestic violence, and we hardly talk about that,” Rojtman said.

While data specific to France is limited, the link between domestic violence and public violence is well documented elsewhere. In the United States, the perpetrator in more than half of mass shootings between 2009 and 2018 shot a current or former intimate partner or a family member, in addition to others. A U.S. study spanning from 1980 to 2006 found that domestic violence calls resulted in more than 4,000 officer assaults and six deaths on average each year. (French government data on police injuries and deaths does not specify the nature of the call.)

Threats of violence still linger

In 2019, 146 women were killed by an intimate partner in France, making it one of the more dangerous countries for women in Europe, behind Northern Ireland and Germany. While women come out to protest each year on Nov. 25 for International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and the term “femicide”—the murder of women on account of their gender—is now widely used, the threat of gender-based violence is still largely perceived as a remote one, the kind that does not happen in nice villages like Saint-Just. A France2 news segment in the wake of the Dec. 23 killings illustrated this well: While it included domestic violence as part of its coverage of the Limol affair, its focus was intimate partner violence far afield, on the French island of Réunion, off the coast of Madagascar. Footage from a police station showed white police officers processing Black couples accused of domestic violence. 

“There’s a real blockage in France,” Rojtman said. Her collective was born in 1996 on the heels of a 40,000-strong feminist protest against the then-incoming administration’s decision to grant amnesty to anti-abortion activists. But she said that violence against women has not succeeded in mobilizing women the way abortion did. 

France is the birthplace of “courtly love” and revered around the world as a cradle of seduction. Rojtman believes that these cultural touchstones may be preventing a more aggressive response to gender-based violence. She points to the now famous letter signed by 100 high-profile French women condemning the #MeToo movement as trying to hinder women’s sexual freedom. And it was only this January that the French Senate approved a law setting an age of consent: 13 years old. 

There’s a gap in enforcing the law

France’s resistance to cracking down harder on gender-based violence contrasts with nearby Spain, which, in 2004, passed a pioneering law that established harsher penalties for offenders and made prevention of gender-based violence a priority. Rojtman’s collective drafted a similar bill in 2006 and presented it to the French government. Though some of the proposed measures were included in a law passed in 2010 aimed at protecting women from abusive partners, most were discarded. What laws do exist, she said, “don’t go far enough, or aren’t applied.”  

In some cases, they can be manipulated to further victimize survivors. Before his death, Limol had brought a case against Valérie claiming that she had violated his parental rights by failing to notify him of a change of address. “For some time now, it’s become trendy to talk about things like ‘the year against violence,’ actions taken to fight gender-based violence, the word ‘femicide,’ etc.,” Bayeh said. “But in reality, nothing changes.” 

The perception that intimate partner violence is a private family matter runs deep. “People close their eyes to it,” said Natalie Conte, who runs a bakery in Ambert, the town of 7,000 where the slain police were headquartered. Residents of the town were blindsided by the shooting. “Knowing they’re no longer here, it’s traumatizing,” Conte added. “And Saint-Just, where it happened, it’s so small, it’s a tiny village, we know most people there. It’s just shocking.”

A few miles down the road, Saint-Just is the kind of rural idyll into which American movies love to drop disaffected writers in search of inspiration, a cluster of stone houses with painted wooden shutters surrounding a squat stone church and, before it, a monument to the village’s lost combatants: two names for World War II, 40 for World War I.

On a snowy morning in January, three men in their 60s, the only people out, gamely chatted about the village’s dwindling numbers (down to half during the winter; many of the houses are summer homes for people from the regional capital, Clermont-Ferrand) and the kind of stone the houses are built out of (lime, not volcanic rock, like further south in the region). But they politely declined to comment on the events of Dec. 23. Limol was a recent arrival and an out-of-towner; they didn’t know him, they said. They’re weary of the press, who have flooded their otherwise peaceful village the last few weeks. 

“It’s that way for the pilgrimage,” one said, jokingly pointing down the road toward what remains of Limol’s house: a blackened stone carcass with the terra cotta roof burned off.

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