Intimate partner deaths account for around 20% of homicides each year. In 2015, 122 women were murdered by their partners or ex-partners in France. Such numbers are sufficient to demonstrate both the existence and the scale of the feminicide phenomenon in French society, and the need for French law to adequately classify gender-based crimes.
In spite of the recent reforms, there is still a problem of public recognition of feminicide and its legal classification. Since the law on the promotion of equality and citizenship was put in place on 27 January 2017, aggravating circumstances for discriminatory motives have been introduced. Thus, article 132-77 of the Penal Code establishes that “when the offence is preceded, accompanied or followed by written or spoken words, images, objects or actions of whatever nature which damage the honour or the reputation of the victim, or a group of persons to which the victim belongs, on account of their sex, their sexual orientation or their gender identity, true or supposed, the maximum penalty of deprivation of liberty shall be increased (…).”
This new amendment, rather than focusing on the sex of the victim – it could be a man or a woman – is directed at the motive of the perpetrator. For the first time the law recognizes the specific nature of sexist murders, and, therefore, in an indirect way the murder of a woman for being a woman. Until the modification of the Law, crimes linked to sexist discrimination were not classified as such. It only recognized aggravating circumstances when the violence or offences against a woman were committed by her partner. When a murder was committed by the partner of the victim, the legal distinction between vicious and sexist motivations did not exist. In this context, the law of January 2017 represents progress with the addition of aggravated circumstances to sexist offences whether committed in intimate or public circumstances.
However, the new law does not explicitly recognize the existence of a chauvinist system of discrimination that results in the death of women. French criminal law still refuses to recognize the concept of feminicide as such due to the principle of non-discrimination and equality enshrined in the Constitution. For this reason the new law does not completely meet either the demands of women’s organizations or international advances in this area.
Apart from the legal problem of classification, there are serious difficulties in creating a proper database for this type of crimes. The legal vacuum with regard to gender-based crimes that existed before the passing of the January 2017 law meant that no accurate census of feminicides existed in France. One can only suppose that a massive number of crimes committed by intimate partners and classed as murders were in fact feminicides. The statistical data relating to sexist crimes published by the relevant authorities must take into account a sexual profile. Until then we will be unaware of the dimensions of this social problem. In general, the data is not published in a timely manner. Data compiled by the Ministry of the Interior relating to intimate partner murders in 2016 have still not been published and women’s organizations have been forced to glean information from the press to create their own census.
With respect to public opinion, the campaign for the recognition of feminicides has been and continues to be somewhat hesitant. The first campaign to recognize feminicides in law was organized by the French association Osez le feminisme! in 2014. Later, the Insomnia Collective created a flash campaign supported by the media, where posters of the 100 women who died at the hands of their partners were plastered on all over bus stops. Combating feminicides became the rallying call in the demonstrations against violence against women of 25 November 2016. Through social media, anonymous activists campaigned using hashtags such as #IAmAFeminicideophobe (#JeSuisFeminicidophobe) or through websites that draw the media´s attention. However, when feminicides occur the response continues to be marginal. It is often left to the families of the victims to publicize cases and “white marches” take place regularly, such as the one organized for Aissatou Sow, a young woman murdered by her ex-partner in November 2016.
Recently, the national newspapers decided to give exclusive coverage to feminicides. In 2017, the newspaper Libération devoted an entire dossier to intimate partner murders, while the online daily Slate published an article entitled “In France you die if you are a woman”. Though such articles are testament to raising awareness by a section of the media, they are relatively few and far between. The term feminicide, which is included in the dictionary since 2014, is still concealed and absent from public debate. We can conclude, therefore, that it is not a priority for policy makers.
If the January 2017 law leads to a better classification of crimes committed for reasons of gender, we will have to wait to see the concrete results of its application. For this to happen, it would be necessary for the French authorities, together with members of the public of both genders, to use this new law and insist on applying aggravating circumstances to gender-based crimes. Finally, in spite of recent legal progress, there is still much work to be done in campaigning to raise public awareness so as to reach a definition and a better understanding of these types of crimes with the ultimate aim of eradicating them completely.