Paris, France – Protesting does not come naturally to Sylvaine Grevin, a softly spoken, middle-aged woman who lives in Brittany, in the west of France. In fact, she spent the vast majority of her life thinking she would never attend one. That was until the death of her sister, Benedicte, a victim of domestic violence. Now, Grevin says, she marches for her.
On Saturday, Grevin and a group of family members who had lost a loved one to domestic violence led tens of thousands of people through the streets of Paris to demand action from the government on the issue.
March organisers from the feminist collective Nous Toutes said 100,000 people turned out to protest. Some French media organisations put the figure at 49,000, while the city police said it was 35,000.
Activists say one thing is certain: It was the largest public demonstration condemning violence against women in French history.
It was March 2017 when Grevin received a call from Benedicte, who said her partner was beating her. This was not the first time. He had already been convicted of assaulting her in 2012 and given a three-month suspended sentence. Benedicte left him for a while, Grevin says, but they eventually got back together. “Unfortunately, he reoffended,” Grevin says.
When she heard what was happening, Grevin says she immediately called the police to Benedicte’s home and told them about her partner’s history of violence, but when they arrived he told them she had accidentally fallen over. The police took some pictures of her injuries and left, she says.
Grevin had no idea. “I thought they would take him into custody, at least,” she says. “Why did they leave him there?”
Ten days later, Grevin received another call – this time from her mother. Benedicte, 55, had been found dead in her home in Pont-Sainte-Maxence, a town in the Oise region, 60 kilometres (37 miles) north of Paris. It was her partner who found her and called the police. The autopsy found that the cause of death was a traumatic head injury, Grevin says, but Benedicte’s body was also covered in cuts and bruises.
An initial inquest immediately after her death concluded that she had fallen because she was drunk, but the family is pushing for an inquiry.
While organisers of the march celebrated the record turnout with the crowd, the small group of family members gathered quietly behind the bandstand. Some shared their final thoughts with the media. Throughout, Grevin held on to a picture of Benedicte, which she had carried across the city. “It’s just unbearable for us as a family. Things have to change.”
A deadly year for French women
Change was the demand that was shouted loudest on Saturday on the streets of Paris. The atmosphere on the 6km (3.7-mile) walk from the glittering Opera Garnier in the city centre to the Place de la Nation in the east was at times solemn, at times angry, at times bordering on jubilant.
“Down with the patriarchy,” protesters chanted as Beyonce played on the loudspeakers. “Solidarity with women around the world.”
For all the solidarity, it was a difficult day for the families at the head of the march, some of whom were grieving relatives who had been killed as recently as this month. As the march reached its end, they burst into relieved applause and hugged.
We need to have a real impact on what is happening in the world, to show that an army of women is rising.
This has been a particularly deadly year for women in France – activists say 138 have died at the hands of a current or former partner. That is already 17 more than in 2018, according to figures collected by volunteers from the collective Femicides by a Partner or Ex.
Meanwhile, a report released by the Ministry of Justice last week showed that, between 2015 and 2016, 80 percent of domestic violence complaints were dropped by public prosecutors.
Today, on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the French government has released a new suite of policies to address the problem, including the introduction of psychological abuse and forced suicide to the criminal code, the lifting of doctor-patient confidentiality for women perceived to be in significant danger, and the addition of 80 new domestic violence specialists to the police force nationwide. Parental responsibility will be stripped from perpetrators who are convicted of domestic violence and accommodation facilities for male perpetrators will be set up in an attempt to prevent reoffending.
But Caroline de Haas of Nous Toutes said these measures were not enough.
Nous Toutes and four other organisations had called for one billion euros ($1.1bn) to be invested in bringing down the femicide rate, dedicated in particular to mandatory training for public officials, increased places in emergency shelters and a nation-wide education campaign in schools, based on a road safety model.
No significant new funds were announced today. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said 360 million euros ($396m) would be dedicated to violence against women in 2020, a similar amount to 2019.
“On Saturday there were tens of thousands of people on the streets all over France. We witnessed the largest mobilisation of people against sexist and sexual violence in history, and the prime minister looked at that and explained to us that there is not one more euro available to fight sexual and sexist violence,” de Haas said. “The discrepancy is staggering.”
“If public policy doesn’t change there’s no reason to expect that violence will disappear in our country.”
‘An army of women is rising’
Still, de Haas says the #MeToo movement has mobilised more people than ever to raise their voices on this issue. That was certainly on display last Wednesday when 200 activists gathered in the basement of the Paris labour exchange to prepare supplies for the march.
An efficient production line of feminists stapled placards, made bandanas and hand-wrote signs with messages of solidarity: “We believe you”, “No means no”, “Not one more femicide.”
Sitting in a corridor, Audrey Randriamandrato, 22, cut bright purple cloth into sashes alongside two friends and fellow members of a women’s empowerment collective.
“I’m marching on Saturday because I’ve been attacked on the streets myself,” she said. “To tell me that I’m not necessarily safe in my own environment – that’s not normal.”
“We need to have a real impact on what is happening in the world, to show that an army of women is rising.”
On Saturday, the army rose. The streets became a sea of violet as volunteers handed out the sashes and protest signs from vans by the side of the road.
No grief without justice
“It gives me hope,” Grevin says. “It shows that we are supported in our actions.”
She says the families of other women lost to femicide have helped her enormously in the years since her sister’s death. She no longer feels alone like she used to immediately after she lost Benedicte.
But this newly-forged activist does not want to keep protesting. She says she and her family just want to mourn, and they have not been able to do that yet.
“We can’t grieve the death of my sister without being given justice.”