Women killed by their partners: confronting the horror

by Marie DHUMIERES and Emmanuel DUPARCQ with Anne LEC'HVIEN
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A person holds a sign reading, "Break the silence" during a rally to denounce femicides and domestic violence in Le Havre, northwestern France, in September 2019

On April 22, a barge picked up the body of a woman stuffed into a suitcase floating in the Oise River in Neuville north of Paris.

The woman was Marie-Alice, 53, a consultant who investigators believe was killed by her partner and her body then disposed of with the help of his son.

She is one of 115 women murdered in France so far this year by their husband, partner or ex-partner in femicides, according to an AFP investigation, a number which shows the scale of the problem after 121 were killed in the country last year.

Looking into figures from a French collective called Femicides by Partners or Exes, AFP correspondents across France have examined every killing of a woman by their partner in the country this year, speaking to investigators and relatives.

The research paints a troubling picture, with the authorities frequently aware of a problem before the crime is committed and loved ones sometimes pained by the knowledge that tragedy could have been averted.

One woman is killed in France every three days by their partner or ex-partner, while marital violence affects 220,000 Frenchwomen every year.

"Our system is not working to protect these women," said Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet.

The killings in France are part of a global scourge that shows no signs of abating, with 87,000 women and girls killed in 2017 according to the UN, over half of them killed either by their spouse, partner or own family.

- 'Toxic relationship' -

Marie-Alice had been living in a damaging relationship where violence always lurked beneath the surface with her partner of 15 years, Luciano, relatives told AFP.

Two weeks after her body was found, Luciano, who was on the run, died after being hit by a lorry in Italy.

His son, who has been charged in the Marie-Alice case, confessed to helping hide the body, saying his father called him to say he had "done something stupid".

"It was a toxic relationship," said Marie-Alice's sister, Helene de Ponsay, who has now become deputy president of the National Union for Families of Femicide Victims (UNFF).

She recalled her sister experiencing panic attacks as the couple had rowed at home after she had forgotten to buy bread.

"My wish is that we understand that psychological violence is always super alarming as it can lead to physical violence and can lead to death," she said.

The first three victims in France this year lost their lives on the same day, January 6.

In Toulouse, Monica, 29, was killed by her partner Felisberto who accused her of cheating on him, and killed her while their daughter was in her room.

In the Yvelines region, Pascale, 56, argued with her husband Robert, 69, who killed her with multiple gunshots.

And Taina, 20, was found under a bridge in Seine-et-Marne after being battered to death with iron bars by Jonathan, a 21-year-old-soldier, with whom she was in the process of splitting up.

In addition to the 115 cases where investigators believe women were killed by their partner or ex-partner this year, probes are continuing into a dozen other cases where it remains a possibility.

- 'Chain not working' -

According to a report published Sunday by France's justice ministry based on 88 cases of marital violence, murders or attempted killings of spouses or partners, the judicial or police authorities were aware of problems between the couple in 65 percent of the cases.

And in 41 percent of cases, the victim themselves had already been in touch with the authorities.

"It is absolutely clear that this is not okay. The penal chain is not working," said Belloubet.

Stephanie, 39, a teacher from the region of Tours, had sought a restriction order against her ex-partner Jean-Michel whose harassment had even reached the extent of living in an apartment in the same block as her.

On the night of March 31, she sent a message to a friend that a man was trying to force open the door of her apartment.

She knew it was Jean-Michel and called the police. "We don't go out for that, madam," she was told.

The next day, Stephanie was found strangled to death in her home. Jean-Michel then returned to his own place and killed himself.

According to the findings of the AFP investigation, separation was the main motive of the murders, counting for over 23 percent of cases, followed by arguments and then jealousy.

Some 32 percent of the killings were carried out with firearms, with knives also counting for an identical proportion.

Blows to the body and strangling counted for 18 and 16 percent respectively, the investigation found.

And, as with the ex-partner of Stephanie, a high proportion of the murders -- some 41 percent -- ended with the assailant seeking to commit suicide or killing themselves.

- 'It's men who kill' -

Marital violence also affects men, and in 2018, 28 men were killed by their partner or ex-partner. In many of these cases, the man had committed acts of violence against his partner.

Activists say police need to step up their response to emergency situations but also emphasise more needs to be done to monitor, restrain and also help men with violent tendencies.

The elderly are not spared either, with several cases involving the over 70s.

"It's not the failings of police that kill women. It's men," said Sandrine Bouchait, president of the UNFF.

Recurring patterns include crimes committed by men with a history of violence, as well as killings that come after rows over custody of children following a separation.

In October 2018, in Ile-Rousse in Corsica, Julie Douib, 35, left Bruno, 42, the father of their two children and they took turns in childcare.

Those close to her say he beat her and demeaned her psychologically.

"He always told her 'you don't have a brain, you are mine'" said her father Lucien.

On March 3, Bruno went to her house and shot her dead.

A person holds a sign reading, "Break the silence" during a rally to denounce femicides and domestic violence in Le Havre, northwestern France, in September 2019

Femicides in France

Some 115 women have been murdered in France so far this year by their husband, partner or ex-partner in femicides, according to an AFP investigation

People lay flowers during a march to pay tribute to Sylvia killed by her husband , in Oberhoffen-sur-Moder, eastern France, on November 17, 2019