France Is Debating How To Legally Address Violence Against Women

The nation is split over whether the term “femicide” — the killing of women because they’re women — should be added to the penal code.

Since the beginning of the year, 104 women in France have reportedly been killed because they were women. Now the country is debating issues of domestic violence, including whether the term “femicide” should be added to the penal code.

France is holding a kind of formal nationwide conversation on domestic violence, known as the “Grenelle des violences conjugales,” which began earlier this month and is scheduled to continue through Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. During this time, French officials and lawyers, as well as associations representing victims and their families, are meeting across the country to discuss ways to prevent these crimes and how offenders should be punished.

Killing A Woman For Being A Woman

The World Health Organization defines “femicide” (or “feminicide”) as the “intentional murder of women because they are women,” although it notes that the term can be used to cover any killing of women or girls. Femicide is recognized in some countries, and even the European Parliament, as a particular form of homicide. But it is not in the French penal code.

In recent years, however, the term has been at the center of a cultural debate in France, as various associations and activists have put immense effort into ending the trivialization of the killing of women as “crimes of passion.”

In 2017, the newspaper Libération conducted a large-scale review of such killings, both to pay tribute to the victims and to shed light on how common these crimes are. The following year, the country avidly followed the case of Alexia Daval. Her husband was the main suspect in her death, even as he initially denied it and organized memorials for her. (He later admitted to beating and strangling her before partially burning her body.) Marlène Schiappa, France’s secretary of equality between women and men, referred to the crime as femicide — a word that previously had been used by activists and the media but hadn’t been widely adopted by the general population.

Women with red hands painted on their faces participate in a night march in Nantes, France, against the killing of women by t
Women with red hands painted on their faces participate in a night march in Nantes, France, against the killing of women by their spouses or former companions.

In an opinion piece published on France Info this July, the families and loved ones of 35 women who had been killed asked that the term “femicide” be added to the penal code to describe a “male chauvinist and systemic crime.”

“These women were killed because they were women, by men who believe they have the right to determine whether they live or die,” the families wrote.

Legal recognition of the term “femicide” in France is absolutely necessary, argues Muriel Salmona, a psychiatrist and president of Mémoire Traumatique et Victimologie, a group focused on preventing violence and providing care for victims. It’s not that the murder of women is inherently more serious than other murders, she said. But they often come with an additional dimension, like racially motivated murders or hate crimes against LGBTQ people, she told HuffPost France. 

“The more precisely we name it, the more equipped we are to identify the root of the violence, and the better we can fight it,” Salmona said. 

The Argument For Not Changing The Law

For French legal experts, the matter is not so clear-cut. 

“Femicide” has been in France’s dictionary of legal and social sciences terminology — which documents expressions used in official materials from the government and Parliament — since 2014, but it still hasn’t been added to the penal code. 

The French National Consultative Commission on Human Rights has been reviewing the issue since May 2016. It says the term should be used “in French diplomatic language on the international stage as well as in the common vernacular, especially in the media,” because it helps to keep such crimes from being trivialized. But it warns against introducing the term into the penal code because of concerns that it “only takes into account the female identity of the victim” and thus doesn’t treat otherwise similar crimes and perpetrators equally. 

Anne-Sophie Wallach, the national secretary of France’s second-largest magistrates trade union, told the news outlet Le Monde that the term femicide “covers a legal classification that already exists.” 

“We consider it neither necessary nor useful to create a different legal category, or even a separate offense,” she said last month. 

Legal experts are divided as to whether the term "femicide" should be included in the French penal code.
Legal experts are divided as to whether the term "femicide" should be included in the French penal code.

Charlotte Beluet, the public prosecutor in the town of Auch, also argued against using the term in the law. “[The word] femicide is tinged with feminism and activism,” she told Le Monde. “We as prosecutors must be objective, neutral, influenced by nothing other than the law.” 

Doing Better Without Saying ‘Femicide’

Emmanuelle Rivier, an attorney who specializes in defending victims of domestic and sexual violence, was unequivocal about the usefulness of the word. It would bring visibility to violent crimes against women and show they “are squarely situated within the continuum of a patriarchal society,” she told HuffPost France. 

But in order to adjudicate such cases as femicide, there would need to be a precise legal definition — and Rivier recognizes that might be hard to enforce. How would you prove that a man killed a woman simply because she was a woman? she asked HuffPost France.

Even if “femicide” is not added to the penal code, Rivier said, there are several options to better legally protect women. For example, the law could describe crimes that are sexist in nature, or presumed to be sexist, when taking place within a relationship, in the same way as it describes crimes that are racist or homophobic. In that case, the onus would fall on the perpetrator of the crime to prove that he wasn’t motivated by sexism.

It’s also important for current laws against domestic violence to be enforced, Rivier said. 

“Numerous existing laws are not being applied as they should be” in France, she said, adding that authorities often don’t accept and act on complaints of domestic violence, as the law requires.

Activists would also like to put new measures in place to require training on issues of domestic violence for police officers, nurses, lawyers and others who may encounter such cases and to require criminal judges to consider whether a potentially violent parent should lose custody of children during the prosecution of domestic violence cases, or even to have custody withdrawn automatically.

But more than the lack of a legal term, it’s the lack of funds and professional training that leaves femicide and other violence against women to continue in France, Rivier said. “It’s the silence that kills.” 

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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