On a rainy Saturday morning in February, five women met outside a metro station in northern Paris. The women, each of whom carried plastic blue buckets, large paint brushes and sheets of white paper, didn’t stand out in the quiet 18th arrondissement neighborhood—until they stopped just outside a playground and started pasting letters to a beige-colored wall.
“You will always find our support on the walls,” read the first collage.
The women are part of Collages Féminicides Paris, a group that brings attention to causes like gender-based violence and femicide across France. To do so, members of the group paint and paste slogans across Paris. “Defend victims, not rapists,” read one recent slogan. “Not all men, but enough that we are all afraid,” read another.
In 2020, during the height of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, at least 90 women were killed by their former or current partner in France. It was the country’s lowest number in fifteen years, down from 146 women killed in 2019. While domestic violence reports spiked by 30% during France’s first — and most strict — lockdown in the spring of 2020, it marked the first time since 2006, when the French government started collecting this data, that this death toll has fallen. Officials attribute the decrease in femicides to increased government measures to prevent domestic violence imposed during France’s first eight-week lockdown.
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During that lockdown, the government allocated one million euros in special funds for associations to help combat domestic violence, financing 20,000 nights in hotels for survivors. The country saw a 36% increase in police interventions for reports of domestic violence and a 32% rise in interventions by the national gendarmerie, according to the Ministry of Interior. Activists regarded the measures as broadly successful. The extra funding, however, was not permanent. It ran out by August 2020.
As France turns a corner, easing COVID-19 restrictions and emergency measures, there are warning signs that fragile progress could be undone and the number of femicides will again increase, activists say, without significant shifts in political will to fund programs aimed at protecting women.
On June 25, Collages Féminicides plans to organize a march in protest of what it calls the “government’s inaction in the fight against femicides.”
This past May, a man chased his wife, Chahinez, a mother of three children, down the street in broad daylight in Bordeaux, shooting her in the legs before burning her alive. The couple were separated at the time of the murder, and Chahinez had filed a report with the police against her husband, a convicted domestic violence offender. The gruesome killing propelled femicide into the national debate.
By one tally, 56 women have already been killed by a partner or ex-partner in France so far this year, a figure that Sophie Barre, co-leader of the activist group NousToutes, calls “extremely elevated” for this time of the year.
“We were able to get a glimpse of what our system can do, and how it can effectively fight violence if we have the resources,” said Ynaée Benaben, co-founder of En Avant Tout(e)s, a women’s rights organization. “Men were not less violent,” she said. “There was a decrease in murders because the system was able to act beforehand.”
The French government says that preventing domestic violence and femicide are the priorities of President Emmanuel Macron’s administration. When contacted about the steps being taken, Emmanuelle Masson, a spokesperson for France’s justice ministry, pointed to Grenelle des violences conjugales, a 2019 government initiative targeted at domestic violence; several of the proposed measures were implemented nationally towards the end of 2020.
These measures include an investment in technology such as téléphones grave danger (emergency cellphones) directly connected with a police hotline and electronic bracelets, which track perpetrators movements using GPS.
The abuser is required to always wear the bracelet, and the survivor has a tracker. If the perpetrator gets within a certain distance of the survivor’s house or job location, the bracelet triggers an alarm, which—if ignored—alerts the police. The Justice Ministry tested the electronic bracelets in the fall of 2020 and they became available for courts to administer nationally at the start of 2021. Of the 1,000 tracking bracelets deployed in the fall of 2020, however, only 78 have been administered.
The emergency phones prevented at least 109 assaults in 2020, Masson told The Fuller Project.
“There is a massive investment by the government,” she said. “It is a priority.”
But activists point to gaps in France’s system. They note, for instance, that France only has enough lodging and funding to provide emergency shelter to half the women who need it when fleeing domestic violence.
“This requires a lot of money, and the government is not financing it,” said Barre, who like many other feminists have viewed the Macron government with skepticism since the July 2020 appointment of a hardline security minister, Gerald Darmanin, who Sophie Spatz, born Olga Patterson, accused of rape.
In 2009, Spatz sought legal consultation from Darmanin, who was then a legal advisor for the right-wing UMP party, which has since dissolved. Spatz, a UMP party member at the time, said she had sex with Darmanin “under duress,” while Darmanin claims it was consensual.
Activist organizations say they are trying to fill the gap. In 2016, one such organization, En Avant Tout(e)s, an association for gender equality and the end of gender-based violence, developed an anonymous online chat room for young adults (generally under age 26) who have questions about dating, sex, love or how to leave an abusive relationship.
“The chat is secure and without judgment,” Ynaee said. “Its purpose is to create a space for discussion, then to provide concrete solutions and refer people to professionals.
In January 2020, plastered along an underpass wall in Paris were names of more than 100 women killed in France in 2020, including murdered sex workers whose deaths are not included in the official count: Emmanuelle. Karine. Valerie. Anonyme. Florence. Xiao. Korotoume. Dina. Marie-Amelie. Marguerite. Salma.
The women are “victimes du patriarcat” or “victims of the patriarchy,” says Collages Féminicides. The group’s tally expands beyond France’s legal definition of femicide, which counts only women killed by a current or former partner. (Non-partner killings are otherwise prosecuted as homicides.)
The 15-foot collage is part of the civic action by a growing movement of French activists who are challenging the patriarchal aspects of French society. It took decades to update the country’s antiquated laws concerning both the age of consent and incest.
In April 2021, French parliament adopted a law that would classify sex between an adult and a minor under the age of 15 as rape. Prior, the age of consent was 15, but prosecutors had to prove that sex was not consensual before someone could be convicted of rape. There is, however, still a “Roméo et Juliette” clause that allows teenagers to have consensual sex with an individual up to five years older. The same legislation also categorizes incestuous sex with anyone under 18 as rape, which had not been the case prior.
Beyond government funding and legislation, it is this culture of sexism that activists say must be changed in France.
“Deep down, there’s a culture of rape and misogyny, a culture of assigning [gender] roles to men and women,” said Isabelle Steyer, a Paris-based lawyer specializing in domestic violence crimes. “The blame always falls on the victim, much more than the perpetrator.”
Even among some of France’s most famous women, activists say sexism runs rampant. When #BalanceTonPorc, the French version of #MeToo, took off in 2017, there was immense resistance. One hundred women, led by actors like Catherine Deneuve, published an open letter in Le Monde denouncing the movement.
French feminists say they hope to speed up progressive reforms by providing a supportive environment for women to speak out about harassment and report abuse.
“It’s necessary for women who have been raped, or harassed or something horrible, to see phrases on the walls: I believe you; we believe you; go file a police report,” said Marie Laferrière, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher in Paris.
Experts credit feminist groups like Collages Féminicides Paris with helping decrease—at least temporarily—the femicide rate.
Because France’s strict curfews made it challenging to mobilize on the ground, groups like Collages Féminicides have used their social media network to find emergency housing for women fleeing violent homes. Social media became an essential tool to connect people and share information, like how to report domestic violence.
France’s newest wave of feminism has taken to the internet to organize and advocate. In January 2021, after academic Camille Kouchner published a book accusing her stepfather Olivier Duhamel of sexually abusing Kouchner’s twin brother when he was a child, a wave of thousands of testimonies poured out on social media under the hashtag #MeTooInceste. A month later, Anna Toumazoff started the hashtag #SciencesPorcs (Sciences Pigs) to collect testimonies of sexual assault and harassment at Sciences Po, an elite higher education institution in France.
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Four years later after #BalanceTonPorc, activists say there is a larger shift towards supporting victims of rape, sexual assault and incest. But this patriarchal culture and the myth of French seduction still exist and endangers women, according to activists.
“When people look at France from abroad, they tend to trivialize sexual assault and harassment, saying that it’s normal for the French, or that it’s part of that cliché of French-style flirting,” said Noémie Twin of Collages Fémicides. “But it’s a sign of rape culture. That’s the reality behind domestic violence. These systemic issues are all connected.”