Written by: Apolline Louvert
Edited by: Jesie Randhawa and Khushi Karnawat
Trigger Warning: This piece contains material
about rape and violence.
Feminism is originally a French word. French movements, protests and figures have historically embodied the principle, from Olympe de Gouge to Simone de Beauvoir. That said, violence against women still continues to this day in France – particularly femicides, a topic central to feminist demands in 2019 and 2020 leading to a series of nationwide demonstrations in both years.
Take Us Seriously
One could say that violence, either verbal or physical, is the most acute manifestation of gender inequality. It now designates, at least officially, a number of legal offenses such as rape, harassment, conjugal violence and femicides, shamefully highly neglected until quite recently.
Since a few decades, the fight against the latter occupies a preponderant place in the feminist combat. In the 1970s, the Mouvement de Liberation des femmes (MLF) was created in France with the aim of condemning a society where women were oppressed and discriminated against. Fighting against rape, one of the extreme manifestations of sexism and normalised misogyny in society, was an important part of their revendications as social and legal leniency towards the aggressor was extremely widespread. It is only in 1980 that raping was finally considered as a crime, punishable by fifteen years of criminal imprisonment.
Following this, the 90s lift the veil on other types of sexist violence and sexual harassment against women. The tongues were loosening, and many testimonials about harassment at work, in the streets and at home were published, shared and read. Finally, in 1992, sexual harassment became a criminal offense, leading to 2 years of imprisonment and a fine.
Since then, a large number of laws against sexist violence, such as the Schiappa law in 2018, have been passed. The latter aims at strengthening action against sexual and gender-based violence by extending the statute of limitations for sexual crimes, strengthening the legal arsenal to punish rape and creating a new offense of gender insult.
However, laws are sometimes hard to enforce. Indeed, in order to proceed legally, women need to have solid proofs, testimonials, which may be hard to collect for such aggressions. Furthermore, even though it is considered as a crime, sexual harassment is still not taken seriously enough by law enforcement agencies.
A personal anecdote will illustrate perfectly this issue is the following:
A few months ago, during the evening, I was sitting in a cafe when a pregnant woman rushed desperately towards me and my friends, explaining that a man had been following her for a while, uttering insults and threats. We called the police to intervene, protect her and arrest this man, who at that time was hiding behind trees. The police told us to wait about fifteen minutes to give them time to arrive. After one hour, the police still hadn't arrived, and the man had run away. Later on, the woman calmed down and decided to go back home alone. Three hours after the initial call, the police rang me asking whether we still needed help. If this woman had not found other help than police, this story could have ended dreadfully.
Profound internal changes are needed within various institutions, as laws do not seem to be enough to lead towards a shift in mentalities with this regard. They represent symbolic advances but require complementary and targeted measures. In this context, education and prevention are essential tools, and need to be reinforced. Another terrifying number, which shows that the laws cited in the previous paragraph have not been sufficient is the number of femicides committed annually, which is rising, with 121 women killed in 2018 and 146 in 2019.
Rallying Against Femicides
Strong protests at the end of 2019 have catalysed around this issue with a national march organised on the 23rd of November, two days before the end of the Grenelle contre les violences conjugales, a set of consultations organised by the government with the objective of bringing together individuals and associations concerned by and involved in the fight against domestic violence and determining necessary measures to be taken against it. The aim of this march was to show public authorities that true change and adequate measures were awaited. Protests took place in approximately 30 cities, with, according to organisers, 100’000 participants in Paris and 150’000 on a national level.
It was qualified by the collective #Noustoutes as one of the largest marches against sexist violence in the history of France. More than 70 organisations, political parties and associations have called their adherents to participate in the latter.
Demonstrators marched in the street with signs in their hands displaying phrases such as: “One does not kill for love”, “not one more” and “no is no”. In Paris, behind the head banner held by the Union nationale des familles de féminicide (UNFF), several marchers carried signs with pictures of their murdered relatives. Along with the physical marches, all over big cities like Paris, posters plastered the walls with horrifying statistics of femicides to bring attention to the casual evil lurking in French households.
The success of this protest gave impetus to the cause and led to the creation of other marches in 2020, on the occasion of Women's Day, that also had as its main demands the condemnation of sexist violence and the adequate protection of women. The context was conducive to contestation given that the Caesar for the best achievement had been awarded to Roman Polanski a few days earlier. Unfortunately, even though the protest took place in a determined, serious but also joyful and peaceful manner, reactions from police forces have been extremely violent and unjustified. Film footages show how a number of policemen fire teargas towards the crowd, tackle women to the ground and pull others by the hair. In addition to physical violence some police officers uttered sexist and lesbophobic insults.
The tragic circumstances that accompanied the marches that took place in 2020 demonstrate that the fight is far from over. Violence is still extremely present and, in some cases, even exacerbated by some factors. This would include ideological resistance against such movements (denunciating both the victimisation and the judicialisation of women in the context of sexist violence) or contextual factors such as isolation due to the containment implemented in France.