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Is France doing enough against femicides?

November 24, 2019

France is one of the countries with the highest number of femicides in Europe. The government is working on a new law to better protect women, but women's groups say it falls far short of what is needed.

Helene Gauthier, who was killed by her boyfriend
Image: Mael Fuentes

France: Tackling femicide

Annick Gauthier feels she's been given a life sentence. She has been living with a gaping void inside of her ever since March 2017, when her 28-year-old daughter Helene (pictured above) was killed by her ex-boyfriend near the city of Reims in northeastern France.

"They had split up six weeks earlier and he had harassed her ever since," Gauthier says. "One morning, he was waiting for her at the horse stable where she worked and tried to convince her to take him back. When she refused, he pulled out a knife and stabbed her in the heart and the lungs."

Gauthier says she thinks of her daughter every moment, but that her brain is still blanking out what really happened. "I think it's trying to protect me — otherwise I'd go crazy. I still can't imagine to never see my daughter again."

'The system let my daughter down'

Hélène Gauthier's mother is furious at the lack of action in France
Annick Gauthier says authorities are not doing enough to protect women from domestic violenceImage: Mael Fuentes

But the 57-year old doesn't blame her daughter's ex-boyfriend exclusively for what happened. She's also furious with a system that she feels let her daughter down.

"Two weeks before he killed her, he broke into her house through the window. He was convinced she was seeing someone else and wanted to frighten her," she says.

Read more: Mass protests against domestic violence, femicide

Gauthier added that Helene then went to the police station to press charges, but that she came out crying. "The police downplayed things and didn't take her seriously. They didn't recognize how dangerous this man was and later decided to drop the case. I am so angry at this patriarchal system, where men shield other men. And which just doesn't protect women."

More than 130 femicides in France this year

Helene's case is just one of many. This year alone in France, more than 130 women have been killed by their partner or ex-partner. The women's rights group #NousToutes ("All of us") has been publicly counting them on its social media accounts over the past few years.

The group has also been organizing events to raise awareness about femicides. Like on one recent Saturday, when a dozen women lay prone on the ground at the Place de la Bastille in eastern Paris. Right next to them, a loudspeaker was airing reconstructions of phone calls to the police.

"I just split up with my boyfriend and he's threatening me — he left me a message saying he wanted to kill me," a female voice coming out of the speaker said. "But that's just words — has he ever hit you?" a male voice answered. "He insulted me and yesterday he hit me, after he discovered I had cheated on him," she replied. "That's hardly astonishing," the male voice uttered adding that the woman should call back when she really felt threatened.

Camille Caratti, a member of #NousToutes and one of the organizers of the event, says that mentalities concerning violence against women really need to change.

Anti-femicide protesters lying on the ground in Paris
Organizers of protests such as these hope that their actions will trigger a response from the governmentImage: DW/L. Louis

"We are trying to do as many events like this as possible to tell people how widespread femicides are. The numbers are going up and every dead woman is a sister that could have been saved if only the government had taken more decisive action."

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New law to better protect women

But the French government says it has taken up the cause. It's been holding weeks-long consultations with associations and victims' families across the country and is working on a new law to better protect women.

"The government is cooperating with lawmakers from all across the spectrum and we are ready to act," says Fabienne Colboc, a member of President Emmanuel Macron's Republic on the March party, during a tour of a new women's shelter in the city of Tours. "The new rules will introduce electronic bracelets to keep violent men at bay. Judges will be able to issue restraining orders within six days and more women's shelters will be opened."

Inside Europe: France targets femicide and domestic violence

The new legislation is currently going through Parliament and still needs to be enshrined in law. More laws could follow depending on the outcome of the consultations, according to the government.

One 'crucial' measure missing

Gauthier was one of those taking part in the country-wide talks. She admits that the new law is a good start. "I am really glad that we are now talking about an electronic bracelet for men — that has worked well in Spain and we should implement it here."

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But she added that one crucial point — something which she believes might have saved her daughter's life — was missing from the new legislation: specific psychological training for police officers.

"They should have to come down from their pedestal and really listen to women who are asking for help. If a woman says she feels threatened they need to take the necessary measures to protect her. We know that there are many women who went to the police asking for help but were turned away — and are now dead."

Gauthier still hopes the government will change the law to include such training modules. So that at least some women will be saved and their families be spared the suffering she has to endure.

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