In a post #MeToo France, the fight against sexual violence continues

French feminist groups worry that the government's symbolic declarations won’t be followed with action. 

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Last weekend, thousands marched across European cities to protest violence against women. There were 49,000 in Paris, and 150,000 across France, according to organisers; as well as tens of thousands in Rome and Spain and Brussels, where the EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini described “the problem’s alarming scope” in Europe, where one in three women has suffered physical or sexual violence.

Across the continent, the watchword was the same: enough with sexism and sexual harassment, enough with violence and rape, enough with women being murdered by current and former partners. Protesters held banners and signs with the names of women who have died as a result of domestic violence: “Martine, 59 years old”, “Laura, 30 years old”, Marie-Claude, 70 years old”.

In Italy, 94 women have been killed by a partner or an ex in 2019 and 142 in 2018, according to the group Non Una Di Meno, which keeps count of femicide victims in the country. In France, 138 women have this year been killed in similar situations, according to a French femicide census: which is more than last year’s count of 121 victims.

The annual marches mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November, yet this year’s events were unprecedented in scale, according to organisers in France and Belgium. The Brussels protest had doubled in size from last year, and in France it’s estimated that this year saw 90,000 more marchers across the country than last.

European institutions also addressed the issue. On Monday in Strasbourg, the European Parliament’s plenary session marked a minute of silence for women who have been victims of violence. “Gender-based violence is a violation of human rights”, EU Parliament President David Sassoli said in a speech that called for all member states to ratify the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s 2011 legal text on fighting violence against women and girls. (As of June 2018, the UK and Ireland, among others, had signed but not ratified the Convention.) The EU Parliament building in Strasbourg was lit up in orange in solidarity with victims, and lights were turned off the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Among feminist groups, many worry that symbolic declarations won’t be followed by action. “The [French] government must be up to this unprecedented mobilisation of the civil society”, Caroline De Haas, of the Nous Toutes group that organised the French march, said on Sunday. The French government has made gender equality its “major national cause of the five-year term” and its website proudly notes the “unprecedented” budget of €530m allocated to the cause in 2019, which will be raised to €1.1bn in 2020. Feminists like De Haas, though, are asking for €1bn to be allocated for the sole fight against domestic violence, citing a report by France’s High Council for Equality, which estimates that been €500m and £1bn are necessary.

On Monday, the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced new measures, resulting from a two-months-long consultation, the “Grenelle against domestic violence”. (“Grenelle” refers to a major political debate and derives from 1968’s major climate talks, named after the street on which they were held: Paris’s Rue de Grenelle.) Measures include additional emergency housing for women in danger, 24/7 access to the emergency toll-free number, the creation of a “danger evaluation grid” at police stations, as well as new laws. The notion of influence, of a violent man over his partner, will be added to French law; violent men will be banned from using guns “after the first complaint” and men killing their partner will lose parental authority over their children. That some of these measures are only being introduced in France in 2019 bear witness to the reality that France has, until now, neglected this issue. In the budget, however, there has been no notable change: the €1.1bn fund for gender equality will in vast parts be allocated to development aid, not to a national policy against domestic violence.

French feminist groups, who at the start of the "Grenelle" had said they hoped for a Marshall Plan to fight violence against women, have deemed the government’s measures insufficient. “Our disillusion is as great as the massive movement [that happened at the weekend]”, De Haas said, adding that if authorities do not change course in their public policies, “the figures of violence will not go down.” The president of the Foundation for Women, Anne-Cécile Mailfert, praised “progress in the law” but warned that without any additional budget, rights groups would not be able to cope with the numerous calls for help that may derive from the government’s awareness campaign. “It is fanciful to believe that we will durably lower the number of victims of violence against women in France without additional funds,” the Foundation’s press release concluded.

At the Paris march, one striking banner read: “The state is guilty.” The public debate around violence against women, initiated by feminist groups and met with growing awareness, will need the logistical and financial support of authorities to create lasting change. So far, the only certainty on this crucial issue is that in the time it takes for policies to be implemented and funding to be increased, women will die. And the state is responsible for protecting each of them.  

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.