The Day in the Life of Domestic Violence in France

*Trigger Warning: Following Post Discusses Domestic Violence and Assault.*

I moved into a new spacious apartment after coming back from winter vacation in early January. I absolutely love my new apartment and my French roommates; it is a lot more spacious and in a much better location in the city in regards to where I work and where I hang out with my friends. However, after about three nights in the apartment, I awoke on Monday morning to the most horrible sound imaginable: a woman being abused by her husband.

The screaming, yelling, and shouting was almost unbearable. The pounding and banging of fists, and the rattling of what sounded like a crowbar falling on the floor was enough to get me sobbing and shaking from my apartment just one floor above. This man’s booming voice filled up the entire building and then some for almost 45 minutes.  The woman’s screams of “Arrête, Arrête!” and the sight of their baby stroller that sits outside are enough to give me nightmares and shivers every time I climb the stairs past their door to the second floor.

I wanted to help this woman– I wanted to do what any sensible person would have done and called the police. However, I realized that I didn’t know how to call the police in France; being alone in the apartment I didn’t have the number to call, and I realized I didn’t know the protocol either. Furthermore, I knew I absolutely could not go down to that apartment, for fear of my own safety and putting my own life in danger. It made me sick to my stomach to know that I was nothing but a bystander in this situation– as was every other person living in this apartment building. I went about my day very shaken up, but determined to figure out the appropriate actions to take in a foreign country.

I have talked to several different French people about this day, and many of the responses have made me sick to my stomach and quite frankly disgusted by this country. I have been overwhelmingly told by most to just leave it be, and that what is going on in this home is a private manner. I’m sorry- but is it 1955? I have been told that I need to wait for it to happen a few more times, and be absolutely positive that he is hitting her (and that he is not just throwing objects or hitting a wall) before I call the police (because really, intense violent yelling and the use of inanimate objects in a violent manner does not constitute “legitimate abuse.”) I have been told that people do not like dealing with the police, and that the police are no help and they do not take things like domestic violence very seriously in France. I have been told not call the police for fear that they would tell the man that their upstairs neighbors (three young adult females) called them– and that in return he could harass us or be violent with us (an actual legitimate concern.) I was told that if I do call the police, I need to be prepared to give information about myself– it’s not just an anonymous call. In fact, I need to ask the police if I want my call to remain anonymous (as far as I know, in the states it is simply not this complicated!) Finally, I was told not to call the police because this family comes from an Arab country, the argument was overwhelmingly in Arabic, the woman wears a hijab, and the family probably therefore practices Islam,   French law enforcement wants nothing to do with them. FYI- There is A LOT of individual racism against Arab people in this country– to the point where being a racist and being a racist against Arabs are considered two different ways of life, and the latter is acceptable. Last time I checked, there was still a WOMAN in Trouble!

Curiously enough, most women I have talked here in France agree that it is a good idea for me to call the police, where as most men agree that I shouldn’t, although the responses above come from both men and women (but the majority of these comments came from men). Sometimes I wonder if I should be more afraid of the abusers here in France or the way people are responding to domestic violence– either way it is not going to stop if people continue to react like this.

Don’t get me wrong, I know many, many wonderful French men (and men of all nationalities). But the way that the majority of France and its citizens believe in handling domestic violence is sad and disheartening. (Even worse, I know that it’s not just France.) Maybe I’m lucky that I’ve never experienced this type of domestic violence (or maybe the men in my life are just what people would call decent human beings). This mentality that is carried in France carries over to all other areas of engrained misogyny– that street harassment is normal and apart of everyday life, and it’s my job as a woman to prevent it from happening; that I shouldn’t travel alone (but especially without a man); that I still need men to carry my things; that women still need to change their last names when they get married. This overall mentality carries over to the normalization and acceptance of Violence Against Women. This mentality is why Chris Brown has a job.

It is not until both men and women (but especially men) step up and start changing the way they view and fight Violence Against Women. It’s not enough to simply say, “Well, I would never hit a woman.” (PS- would you like a prize or a trophy for being a decent human being and doing what is expected of you?) We need to start doing things such as calling the police, knowing where to find the nearest domestic abuse shelter, spreading awareness during Domestic Violence Awareness Month (in October, though it is usually overshadowed by Breast Cancer) and start talking to our friends and families whom we believe may be victims or perpetrators. We need to stop racial profiling domestic abuse to one specific race or religion; it happens to as many as 1 in 4 women (and 1 in 3 women of color.) We need to stop supporting artists such as Chris Brown, and we need to stop normalizing violence against women in music, television shows, and movies.

I know I won’t be able to save the world with this one post, but maybe, just maybe, I will be able to get people talking, thinking, and changing a simple action or two. Pay it forward, right?

By the way, the number for the police in France is 17; the number for the fire department is 18; the number for an ambulance is 15. An emergency number is 112. Next time it happens, now that I know, I will be speaking with my landlord and be making an anonymous call to the police.



6 thoughts on “The Day in the Life of Domestic Violence in France

  1. I’m American so it horrifies me as well. Ive seen a girl being beaten up on the street and no one bothered to help her. My friend and I (she’s a Brit) were like who do we call, can we help her but we didn’t know what to do.

    In fact just last night my ex boyfriend and I got into an altercation. He was chocking me on the street and no one bothered to help. Boulevard Saint Michel at midnight on a Friday night and the person who stopped was a guy who came and grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. He was on my exes side! I kept telling him get off me, don’t touch me and he refused.

    This is unfortunately not my first French boyfriend who has been abusive. I had one before who sexually assaulted me. I’ve known other women who have been repeatedly abused. In fact one woman went to the police after her husband pushed her down the stairs when she was pregnant. She had to go to hospital, miscarried, and the police refused to let her file a complaint. The French are extremely chauvinistic and if anyone thinks domestic violence isn’t ingrained in them as acceptable you’ve never actually lived here. It’s absolutely disgusting. And after reading this article I’m not even sure I should complain about it to the police. My neck hurts from where he grabbed me (twice by the way. the first time security at the bar had to get him off me) but I don’t have bruising and I’m sure the police will just say it’s my fault on some way. I’m sure me hitting back will be held against me. I would like to get a restraining order because I am scared of him, I didn’t go to work for 2 weeks because I was afraid he’d show up, he didn’t so I figured I was safe and low and behold last night he showed up.

    But alas there’s nothing to do. I live in a country where it’s acceptable to hit women, to sexually assault them, to do whatever you want to them and c’est la vie.

    1. Jeez, what a heavy comment.

      First, when you witness violence, it’s best not to put yourself in danger– I would call the police (122). This way you’re helping but not harming yourself !

      I recommend pressing charges against your boyfriend and getting proper help from DV shelters or hotlines in your area. I’m sorry this has happened to you.

  2. Laith, I can see how you would be “utterly horrified”, and I am very sorry that my comment made you feel that way so I’ll explain. I used the expressions “incite a riot” and “push buttons” because, in all truth and honesty, I personally am guilty of doing just that. I was putting myself in the girl’s shoes (and Dana knows me personally, so she also knows my back story which you don’t) and thinking how that in a relationship a lot of times disputes go both ways. If my neighbors had called the cops on me through my cardboard-thin walls every time I had a fight with a significant other (ex-hubby or current bf, once again, you don’t know my story) the police would have been wasting a lot of resources. Instead, my neighbor came and knocked on my door and asked me if I was ok? She assumed that I’d been hurt, when in fact I had decked my ex in the face out of frustration — lack of communication, stress, exhaustion (common problems in inter-cultural relationships or relationships where one of the partners is far from home)– those aren’t excuses, but they are factors that lead to my poisonous relationship which was very much a two-way street. Long story short — I know what it is like to be the victim, and I also know what it is like to abuse somebody else. Not proud of that. What can we do? Well, we can share what we know and we can talk about it. it’s as simple as that. I have a lot of problems with men and as a woman, I haven’t always handled them like a lady. It was simply an observation.

    I am not trying to “divert” attention — Dana asks for comments and add-ons, and I added on with the thought that came to my mind. When you are not in the relationship, you cannot know what is going on. You’re right, she screamed “stop” and that should have been enough. For that, he was certainly wrong. I happen to live in a Maghreb community (as Dana also knows) and I hear fights like this a lot. The women just plain and simply don’t raise their voices. Ever. I was just saying that the fact that they don’t raise their voices doesn’t make the argument one-sided. I was also commenting that I have lived in France long enough and had enough interaction with the police that I thought it would be helpful to explain some of the reasons why the police don’t intervene, and why it is more of a help to get to know this woman than to sit around waiting for another fight. I also suggested that she find an association, because THAT is how women truly get help when they are experiencing domestic violence. I think that saying 1) we don’t have all the facts and 2) if you want more facts, get to know her, is a perfectly reasonable plan of action for a friendly and helpful, truly kind hearted and good meaning girl like Dana.

    Laith, I’m glad that you’ve apparently always been in healthy relationships where you can look down on others for having a different perspective or for adding something to the discussion. Personally, I’m strong enough to admit my own weaknesses and intelligent enough to know that I’m not the only one who picks fights or pushes buttons from time to time. There are normal fights and then there is domestic violence, but when you are on the other side of the wall, it’s hard to know which side of the line you are standing on. The best way to do just that and to truly help this woman if god forbid that’s the case would be to get to know her better.

    Please feel free to message me if you’d like to continue our discussion: You’re right that I could have been a bit more careful with my words in my first comment but long story short, I was trying to make a point that you don’t always know what is happening behind closed doors, especially since this is a personal subject for me. (Thanks, Dana)

  3. I thought I’d add a few different things that might be helpful.

    First, if you need to call an emergency number anywhere in Europe, just go ahead and dial 112. It’s much easier than remembering poison control, an ambulance, firefighters, police, etc.

    The part that’s a little exaggerated is that you don’t have to give your personal information to the police if you don’t want to. However, if you don’t tell them your name, they can’t open an investigation and they likely won’t come. It’s not like they are idiots — they aren’t going to knock on your neighbor’s door and say, “Yeah the girl upstairs? She complained about you…” they are smarter than that. Giving your name is more of a formality to legitimize your claim. The other thing to remember about the police is that they are severely under-staffed, and if 42 drug distribution points aren’t even significant enough to get their attention (for example), then a little bit of domestic violence isn’t going to do it either. She’s better off getting help from an association if that is what SHE wants… which leads me to my next point — have you tried talking to this woman? I’m not defending her husband’s actions by any means (I wasn’t there, obvi) but if you talk to her, you might get the whole story. Is she home sick? Are they having a hard time with their marriage? Does she have a small child and is she just tired? Maybe being friendly is a better approach. Go knock on her door sometime and invite her up for tea. Chances are, she’ll invite you in. I wouldn’t embarass her by asking outright, but at least that would give you the chance to see what’s really going on over there. Chances are, in the middle of the day, he won’t be home, and chances are even stronger that even if he were home, he wouldn’t be rude to you. He doesn’t have a reason to be. Also, you don’t know if she started the fight or not, or if the fight was about something she did. It’s important not to forget that women can be just as guilty of men when it comes to domestic violence, which is also inexcusable.

    It’s important to keep in mind as well that there’s something kind of particular about being in a relationship when you are far from your home, far from your family and your support system, far from people who speak your language and fully understand you. That puts an awful lot of strain on even the best marriages. Men and women also have very different ways of reacting when under an intense amount of stress. You may be hearing his voice, but you might not be seeing her (for example) refusal to communicate/passive aggression/etc. which are equally as frustrating as a raised voice. She may very well be pushing all of his buttons inciting the riot.

    For me, being a feminist is about helping other women, and about understanding what it’s like to be a woman and face the things we face as a wife, as a mother, as a daughter, sister, whatever. If she is really and truly being abused and if it wasn’t just a spat, then she needs a friend. She might just appreciate having somebody to talk to. Give her a little salaam alaikum and see what happens. 🙂

    1. Hey Amber!

      Thanks for your comment. I added the info about phone numbers and yes, it is really unfortunate how the forces are understaffed and frankly disrespected in France.

      I really like your perspective of maybe personally reaching out to this woman– I’m sure she could really use a friend (couldn’t we all?) I think I’ll do just that. 🙂

      PS- so glad to see you back on the web. Call me soon so I can hear about how everything is going. xoxo

    2. Amber, I am utterly horrified at your assessment of this incident. Was she “pushing his buttons”? Did she “incite the riot”? What you are doing is victim blaming. I don’t care how many “buttons” were pressed, there is no excuse for violent action between partners.

      Furthermore, I think it’s really deplorable how you try to divert attention from the issue of this man attacking this woman, and explain how women can also be capable of violence against men. Fantastic, thank you for trying to change the subject to blame the woman even more! Clearly, this is not a case of a woman assaulting a man, as the woman is reported as screaming “stop” multiple times.

      The level of misogyny reflected in your post is nauseating, and I hope that you reflect on your beliefs, and change them.

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