One woman’s experience of domestic violence and seeking help in Paris

France sees spike in calls to domestic abuse helpline during Covid-19 lockdown

Marie says she awoke to see her partner above her telling her he would smash her ‘head in’

Marie says she awoke to see her partner above her telling her he would smash her ‘head in’

 

We’ll call her by her middle name, Marie. Other names have been changed, to protect the anonymity of the family.

Marie is one of 220,000 women who are victims of domestic violence in France each year. In 2019, 146 women were murdered by partners, the ministry of the interior reports.

Despite a decade of government campaigns, including repeatedly declaring the fight against violence against women a “grand national cause”, the phenomenon is depressingly persistent. During the Covid-19 lockdown, calls to the government hotline for abused women increased 400 per cent.

Marie was 31 when she met Saleh. A transplanted Londoner with an Irish father and a Welsh mother, she found it exhausting to communicate in French. He spoke English well, and had a sense of humour which over the years would turn caustic. Like her, he was from a large family.

In retrospect, she realises she ignored the warning signals, the way Saleh said he “could have any job he wanted” but was “between jobs”. The fact he still lived with his parents at age 32.

For a long time, Marie thought Saleh could not get a job because he was a north African Arab. On a visit to Paris, her mother remarked that she saw many north African Arabs working.

Marie cut her head badly in a roller-blading accident. The emergency room doctor said she needed adult supervision. The following day, Saleh moved into the 40 sq m apartment she shared with two children from a previous relationship. Marie applied every year for subsidised housing. In 2013 the family obtained a four-bedroom duplex.

Marie became pregnant soon afterwards. “He told me to have an abortion. I said no, because of my Catholic faith. The minute I saw the heartbeat I thought, ‘It’s a done deal’... I wasn’t comfortable with him, but I love babies.”

The couple had two sons, Rabih and Rafiq, in 2½ years. Marie’s father, a driving instructor from Co Monaghan who settled in England, complained that none of his grandchildren had an Irish name, so she gave the younger son the middle name Padraig.

Rafiq has autism. Saleh grew impatient with the boy over homework and punched a hole through the door.

Saleh was on the basic welfare payment of about €500 per month. Marie earns more than €4,000 monthly, teaching English to French businessmen and working for an online Catholic magazine.

“In 15 years, he never paid a bean for the children or household,” Marie says. “He spent all his money on alcohol, dope, cigarettes and scratch-cards.”

Asked why she didn’t leave Saleh, Marie says he convinced her that everything was her fault. And she feared he would take the children to Morocco, where his parents are from.

In the spring of 2016, Saleh smashed the car in a drink-driving accident. Six months later, he got very drunk and behaved badly at her brother’s wedding. A dispute broke out after the reception. Saleh pushed Marie against a wall and tried to strangle her, breaking her necklace.

“October 2016 was the first time he was physically violent. I went upstairs and locked myself and the kids in the bedroom. He threw a bottle of wine on the floor. There I was, in my silk coat, picking up shards of glass.”

Saleh pulled Marie’s hair and kicked her through the bed covers while she was sleeping. She awoke to find him staring at her. “I’m going to smash your head in,” he said. She began locking the bedroom door and saved money for legal fees. He responded to a lawyer’s letter by banging doors throughout the apartment at 3 am.

During a terrible row in the summer of 2019, the children hid behind a door. Saleh smashed it so hard that Rabih’s arm bled. Saleh went to smoke on the balcony. Marie locked him out and called the police.

Marie obtained a judge’s order barring  Saleh from the apartment for six months. He refused to leave. The police finally persuaded him to go, on Hallowe’en night. Pretending to hug his sons goodbye, he scratched them both on the torso.

Marie has another legal battle still to fight, to stop Saleh’s unsupervised visits with their traumatised sons

But because Saleh’s name is on the lease, and because the couple never married, French regulations required the barring order to be renewed every six months. Marie earns too much to be eligible for legal aid, and each time the process cost her €900 in bailiff’s fees alone. She has spent €12,000 in lawyers’ fees.

The present barring order will expire on September 23rd. Marie and Rabih were worried sick that Saleh might be allowed to return to the apartment. Saleh stared at Marie through a parent-teacher meeting on September 10th, then followed her until she walked to the police commissariat.

When Marie first went to the police, she was not told the difference between making a statement and filing a complaint. She had to wait four months for the psychological evaluation required by social services, only to be told she needed to see a psychiatrist, not a psychologist.

One problem, Marie says, is that nothing is centralised. “My family judge has no information from social services or the police. None of them communicate with each other. I never went to an association. It’s just another group of people to explain my rubbish to. I haven’t got the energy to explain my tragic, humiliating story to yet another group of people who don’t have the power to change the situation.”

Marie received hopeful news on Monday. A family court judge said that despite regulations, she will recommend that Saleh’s name be removed from the lease. Marie has another legal battle still to fight, to stop Saleh’s unsupervised visits with their traumatised sons.

Marie says she is heartened by the way president Emmanuel Macron and Marlène Schiappa, a telegenic junior minister, have highlighted the scourge of domestic violence. But, she adds, there’s a gap between the rhetoric and the long ordeal she has gone through to obtain some peace of mind.

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