‘I am not dead, and therefore I do not count:’ France’s domestic abuse failure

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PARIS — France isn’t doing enough to prevent violence against women and help the victims.

A new report out Tuesday called for greater action and comes as France holds a national conversation on the topic that includes a government consultation process.

A Council of Europe group of experts published an evaluation of France’s implementation of the Istanbul Convention, which aims to tackle violence against women and domestic violence. According to the experts, France has had “strong engagement in pursuing policies to prevent and combat violence against women as a national priority.”

However, they said France needs to “increase the number of specialist services and dedicated shelters for women victims while ensuring their adequate geographical distribution, intensify training measures for all professionals, improve the criminal response to violence and review the criminal definition of sexual assault and rape to ensure it is based on the absence of freely given consent.”

The report also criticizes the practice of allowing rape cases to be brought to a correctional court for less-serious charges, making it possible to reclassify the offense as sexual assault, which carries less-serious penalties. This “minimises the seriousness of the rape,” making victims “bear the consequences of the dysfunction of the judicial system.”

“Some of my clients were mocked, some were totally discredited, and some eventually decided not to file a complaint after all” — Choralyne Dumesnil, former French lawyer

In response, the French government said it was “more committed than ever to combatting all sexual and gender-based violence.”

On Sunday, the French justice ministry released its own report studying murders or attempted murders related to domestic violence in 2015 and 2016. The report found that two-thirds of the victims had suffered domestic abuse prior to the killing.

More than 100 women in France have been victims of femicide, usually defined as the murder of a woman by a current or former partner or a family member, since the beginning of 2019. The killings sparked several protests, which led the French government to launch a “grand consultation” on domestic violence, bringing together ministers, jurists, victims’ families and rights advocates.

The consultation has run for three months and ends on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

A march in Paris on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in 2018 | AFP via Getty Images

Not taken seriously

Jill Bourdais, who runs a domestic abuse support group in Paris, said in a recent interview she was “not optimistic” that the consultation was “going to do much.”

“The real problem lies with the police and its reception of women’s complaints, the judges who do not punish abusers, and the prisons which are so full that no abusers ever get jailed unless they almost murder their victims,” she said.

Some survivors of domestic violence feel that their plight is sidelined, with the focus placed on those who were killed.

“I am not dead, and therefore I do not count,” said Melissa, an abuse survivor living in Paris. She’s concerned that the national debate in France focuses too much on the cases of femicide rather than the thousands of women suffering long-term physical, psychological or sexual abuse.

Over the years, she said, she repeatedly reported her abusive partner to the police. She had to fight for custody of her children after their father forced her to give up legal guardianship, and for her money in their shared bank account, which he took away.

But she said police would frequently reject her complaints and did not take the abuse seriously. One officer, she recalled, told her: “You have a big house right? Well, go home and draw a line in the center and you stay on one side and he stays on one side.”

Marlène Schiappa, secretary of state dealing with gender equality since 2017, is in charge of the national debate | Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images

Now divorced, Melissa still suffers from mental health issues including post-traumatic stress disorder related to her partner’s abuse.

Choralyne Dumesnil, a former French lawyer who defended domestic abuse victims, said the government should have done the groundwork first before consulting with the public. There should have been a “thorough investigation” first into the femicide victims and their interactions with the police, prosecutors and judges to establish structural issues within the state, she said.

Dumesnil described the consultation as a “marketing communication” scheme, saying it was “not focusing on solving the problems, just talking.” Like Melissa, she also worries that the focus on femicide is too narrow.

Marlène Schiappa, secretary of state dealing with gender equality since 2017, is in charge of the national debate. However, her position has a much smaller budget than a fully equipped ministry and she cannot sign decrees. The announcement of a €1 billion budget for promoting gender equality in 2020 — double the amount for this year — came with few spending details.

Dumesnil believes that if there is no tangible monetary input, there won’t be any change in judicial training and police practice — even though such training is sorely needed. She said she had repeatedly encountered insensitive and inappropriate behavior by police officers toward domestic abuse victims.

“These investigations were handled like all other types of violence and it was a serious mistake” — Catherine Garnier, a recently retired police commander

“Some of my clients were mocked, some were totally discredited, and some eventually decided not to file a complaint after all,” she said.

Catherine Garnier, a recently retired police commander in the southern French town Carcassonne, said that such occurrences were not uncommon.

The officers at her station had been trained on all types of violence in a single day, Garnier said, adding: “The section on domestic violence might have been 20 or 30 minutes squeezed into a packed day of training.”

Garnier said that throughout her career, she was left to figure out by herself how best to handle cases of domestic violence as she investigated numerous complaints without proper training.

“These investigations were handled like all other types of violence and it was a serious mistake,” she said.

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