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Monday, August 03, 2020

As deaths mount, France tries to get serious about domestic violence

According to government figures, a woman is killed in France by her partner or former partner every three days, but authorities don't always take fears and complaints seriously enough to act on them

By: New York Times | Published: September 4, 2019 9:38:48 am
France domestic violence, france domestic violence deaths, femicide, france violence against women, emmanuel macron, france news Banners outside Paris City Hall list the names of 94 women killed by their partners this year, in Paris. (Dmitry Kostyukov/The New York Times)

Written by Laure Fourquet (Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris.)

Julie Douib tried to do everything right. She left her abusive partner. She reported his violence to police at least a dozen times. After he forced her to give up custody of their two children for the weekend, she told police that he had a license for a gun and that she was afraid he would shoot her.

“Madame, I am sorry,’’ the officer replied, according to Douib’s father, “but his license cannot be taken away unless he points the gun at you.”

He did so 48 hours later, and fired twice, hitting Douib, 34, in her chest and arms. “He killed me,” she said with her last breath, said Maryse Santini, the downstairs neighbor who found her.

Douib’s death in March crystallized the issues of domestic violence and the difficulties that women in France face in getting authorities to take their fears and complaints seriously and to act on them.

She was the 30th woman in France to die this year at the hands of her partner, and more than 70 additional women have been similarly killed since then. According to government figures, a woman is killed in France by her partner or former partner every three days.

The 100 deaths is the earliest such a terrible benchmark has been reached in France, according to advocates who track the issue. Though it is unclear what factors may be behind the toll, the issue has drawn wider attention in France since President Emmanuel Macron started using the term “femicide.”

The most recent Eurostat data, from 2015, shows that more women are killed each year in France than in Britain, the Netherlands, Italy or Spain. In Western Europe, only Germany and Switzerland had more.

The toll is increasingly catching the attention of French officials, who have begun taking more urgent steps to combat the trend.

On Tuesday, the French government opened national debate in an effort to stamp out what some lawyers and prosecutors call femicide to underscore the particular nature of the crime.

The term femicide was first coined in the 1970s to refer to gender-related killings. Femicide is not recognized in the French criminal code, but Marlène Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality, said the recognition would be discussed in the coming weeks.

The consultation process started Tuesday, in reference to the domestic violence helpline 3919, and is to continue until Nov. 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Over the course of those 12 weeks, 91 conferences will take place across France to discuss how to prevent femicide, protect the victims and punish offenders.

Along with the conferences, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a series of measures Tuesday to ensure that French authorities better handle domestic violence cases, including creating a unified protocol to assess how dangerous a victim’s living situation is.

He also said that specialized prosecutors and courts would be created to more swiftly handle domestic violence cases, some of which can drag on for years.

“Acts of domestic violence are not disagreements within a couple where the blame is shared,” Philippe said at a news conference in Paris. “Very often it is a process of sexist control, so ingrained in our mentalities and our habits that some men have grown used to a form of impunity.”

In the months before her death, Douib sought five times to press charges against her former partner, Bruno Garcia, 43. None of the charges resulted in any action against him.

When Douib complained that she had been forced to sleep in her car after he had kicked her out of their apartment half-naked, police told her that she could not retrieve her belongings because the lease was not in her name.

On another occasion, she filed a complaint after she was pushed down the stairs of her former apartment building, but the complaint was frozen when Garcia pressed his own charges, saying she had damaged the front door — an allegation that contradicted neighbors’ accounts of the events.

“A police station should be a shelter for all the women suffering from domestic abuse,” said Antoinette Salducci, a local representative in Corsica who told Douib that she should keep pressing charges. “I was miles away from thinking that the system was so flawed.”

A lack of action by police should not be tolerated, said Luc Frémiot, former prosecutor and a leading figure in the effort to help domestic violence survivors in France.

“Women need to be taken seriously the moment they step foot inside a police station,” Frémiot said, adding, “Any officer who fails to report abuse should be penalized.”

Douib left her partner six months before she was killed. After the separation, Garcia repeatedly threatened her, telling her that if she did not leave Corsica — and their children — she would die.

According to her relatives, Douib knew it was only a matter of time before Garcia would follow through. But she refused to leave her children behind.

“She was given the opportunity to leave, but she stayed to protect her children,” said her father, Lucien Douib.

On March 1, Julie Douib went to the police station.

Two days later, Santini, her downstairs neighbor, was watching a Sunday church service on television when she heard the first gunshot. “Fireworks,” she thought. She said she had been aware of the abuse but never believed that Garcia would carry out his threats.

When she heard the second one, she left her apartment and started climbing the stairs to the second floor, and she ran into Garcia.

She said he stopped and stared at her, his hands tucked into his jeans, as if he were holding something beneath his shirt. It was a “few seconds that felt like hours,” Santini recalled. Though terrified, she found the courage to keep climbing the staircase.

A trail of blood led her through the open front door of her neighbor’s apartment and onto the balcony, she said.

Santini said she had grabbed Douib’s hand and screamed for help.

But it was too late, she said, recounting Douib’s dying words.

Garcia calmly walked to the police station. When he arrived, he handed in his 9-millimeter handgun and confessed to the crime.

“Julie did everything by the book,” her father said.

“As soon as she found the courage to speak up, she reported the abuse,” he said. “Julie had faith the justice system would prevail.”

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