Ninety women were killed by their partners or ex-partners in France in 2020 – a significant drop from the 146 victims of femicide the previous year, according to a French government statement on Tuesday. But French NGOs say it is too early to celebrate a reversal of the trend.
In 2020, 106 domestic crimes were committed in France and 90 of the victims were women, Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti said in a video posted on Facebook on Tuesday. “In 2019, 173 crimes were committed, and 146 women were killed,” he said.
“Of course, every murder, every act of violence is a failure, with tragic consequences that we can only imagine. A failure for our entire society and a failure of the ministry of justice,” he added. “The results are still too modest but they offer a glimmer of hope.”
More than 200,000 women are victims of violence every year and in 2019, it was estimated that a woman was killed by her partner or ex-partner every three days.
The figure announced for 2020 is the lowest in the 15 years since the French government began counting. But associations fighting violence against women say it is too early to welcome this year’s statistic as any kind of enduring trend.
“The circumstances in 2020 were most exceptional, because of Covid and the lockdown,” said Céline Piques, a spokeswoman for the group Osez le Féminisme (Dare to be Feminist).
“We’ll see if the numbers are confirmed in 2021, but for now it’s too early to point to the exact causes for the drop in the number,” Piques told FRANCE 24.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, women’s defense groups alerted the world to the heightened threat women faced by being locked down with an abusive partner. The pandemic and the restrictions imposed to curb its spread shed a spotlight on the violence abused women and children suffered at home, leading to an increase in reports of these incidents.
Justice Minister Dupond-Moretti said the considerable drop in the number of femicides “is undoubtedly due to the view that the whole of society has come to bear on domestic violence and these heinous crimes, and thanks to the work of nongovernmental organisations”.
“It’s also due to the measures taken by the justice ministry to fight against this violence,” he added, citing the introduction of several measures following the so-called Grenelle des violence conjugales, a conference on domestic violence that involved a series of round tables organised by the French government at the end of 2019 to find solutions.
Some of the measures taken following the Grenelle discussions include the deployment in September of electronic ankle bracelets equipped with geolocalisation technology, which emit an alert whenever a violent partner or ex-partner approaches a victim; the distribution of so-called téléphones grave danger – or emergency mobile phones for women threatened with violence – allowing them to alert the police with the push of a button; and expulsion orders allowing the eviction of a violent spouse from the home.
Putting violence into words
But feminists warn against accepting the government’s declarations on the drop in the number of murders and its causes at face value.
Piques agrees there has been a societal change over the past few years. “Already, the term ‘femicide’ has now been recognised and integrated and we’ve stopped considering marital violence as simple ‘disputes’, ‘scandals’ or ‘crimes of passion’ – we’re hearing less and less of that kind of rhetoric. This is really a cultural battle we’re winning, and it’s really important,” she said.
“For example, Osez Féminisme ran a campaign in 2014 around the term femicide, and everybody laughed at the time. Today, politicians are using this term,” she said. “As a result, people have been reacting differently to violence, especially neighbours and people in the couple’s circle, they are better equipped now to detect violence against women and put it into words.”
Piques also agrees that the measures following the Grenelle discussions are a step in the right direction. but “we see today that in terms of the number of protection orders, or the number of emergency phones, we’re really only at the very beginning of what needs to become a massive deployment”, she said.
For example, France is far behind Spain in implementing measures to protect women. Based on figures from 2019, Spain has issues many more protection orders than France, Piques said. “We don’t yet have the figures [of measures implemented] from 2020. But if we listen to associations such as the FNSF (fédération nationale solidarité femmes, or Women’s national solidarity federation), maybe a few more protection measures have been introduced, but it’s not at all systematic yet and the judiciary has not yet begun deploying protection orders as they do in Spain, where they issue some 30,000 orders a year – as opposed to a few thousand in France.”
Other measures are also slow to be deployed: Only 1,260 emergency phones were distributed to women in danger by the end of 2020 and 17 electronic ankle bracelets – only eight of which are active – were distributed as of mid-January.
Domestic violence up due to Covid-19
Amid the Covid-19 crisis, there are other factors that have not yet been measured but may have contributed to the drop in the number of femicide cases.
For example, according to UN data released in late September, lockdowns led to increases in complaints or calls to report domestic abuse around the world, with a 30 percent increase in France. Yet the number of femicides dropped.
“We know that a major portion of femicides takes place after a separation or at the moment of separation. And here we see two somewhat contradictory statistics: On one hand, a very steep rise in violence, and on the other, an apparent drop in femicides. So, there’s a paradox that might stem from the fact that many women suffering violence today are unable – with the lockdown, Covid, the economic crisis, also in terms of employment or income – to leave their partners,” Piques explained.
Another issue is how the number of femicides is being counted and by whom.
Féminicides Par Compagnons ou Ex, a feminist collective that monitors reports of femicides in the media, tweeted on Tuesday: “When @E_DupondM minimizes #feminicides and discounts elderly and sick women murdered by their husbands (sick emojis)… Know that we’re never far behind the official figure [in releasing our count], and therefore, we will be talking about this again! 2020 -> 100 femicides by a partner or ex”.
Piques agrees that definitions of femicide vary, raising questions about the government’s figures. “We really need go back to the original definition of femicide, which is murder on the basis of sexism, a definition that is wider than spousal homicide. For example, there are cases of murder in couples that don’t reside together, which aren’t counted; or even cases when a man murders a woman because she refused his advances. Is that a sexist murder or not? These aren’t counted either. So in fact, the definitions do vary widely,” she said.
“We also need to include the murders of prostitutes, which occur every year. That, for me, is a truly sexist murder and another example of femicide that isn’t counted,” she added.
Dupond-Moretti’s announcement on Tuesday was the first of its kind by a justice minister in France since the ministry asked in 2020 that systemic reports be sent to the general prosecutor for each domestic homicide, to offer “a more precise follow-up” of these murder cases “to evaluate the impact of the Grenelle measures”.
“Of course, additional resources are still needed, and we will focus on them,” Dupond-Moretti said Tuesday. Organisations fighting for the protection of women from violence couldn’t agree more.