Inside France's guerrilla-style street art protest against rampant femicide
Members of Collages Feminicides plaster a message on the streets of Paris while Police look on (Collages Feminicides/Submitted)
TORONTO – French women have taken to the streets in an art canvassing project and protest aimed at raising awareness of the rampant gender-based violence and femicides gripping the country.
France has seen more than 120 femicides -- usually defined as the murder of a woman by a partner, ex-partner or family member -- since the beginning of this year alone, and the number continues to climb.
The previous year saw a total of 121, according to the French Ministry of the Interior.
France is thought to be among the countries with the highest rates of women killed by their partner according to 2017 Eurostat figures.
In response, the French government has announced a slew of new measures in September to address the issue of gender-based violence, and promises about a designated budget to implement said measures.
Those decisions are being welcomed by the women behind the “Collages Feminicides,” the guerilla-style street art movement that was started in Paris this past summer by artist and feminist activist Marguerite Stern. But the group says the problem of gender-based violence should have been addressed decades ago, and have no plans to end their campaign.
For weeks, local chapters of Collages Feminicides have been prowling the streets of Paris, Lyon, Nantes, Marseille and other cities, using wallpaper glue to paste sheets of paper on public structures or roads emblazoned with the names of women who have been murdered by their partners, slogans calling for change, or simply chilling statements like: “She leaves him, he kills her.”
In the Marseille chapter, Canadian member A.C., who CTV News.ca has agreed not to identify for fear of legal reprisals, has been working side-by-side with the group as they expand their membership, after stumbling across the movement on social media.
“I stumbled across one of the Paris group’s Instagram posts…and I thought to myself ‘I wonder if there is a Marseille chapter’ and there was, it had been created only two weeks before” A.C. said in an interview with CTV News.ca by telephone from Marseille on Wednesday.
A.C. says the group is an excellent example of how powerful grassroots movements can be, even one as de-centralized as Collages Feminicides.
“After she [artist Marguerite Stern] started the group, she kind of took a step back and allowed the campaigns to branch out organically,” A.C. said, adding that each cities chapter may have multiple leaders or may be completely group run.
A.C. said the funding for the group is provided by public donations which go into a central pot or “cagnotte,” which are then used for everything from collage materials to their penal fines.
The names of femicide victims are taken from news reports or word of mouth, but there have been cases where families of unreported victims reach out to the group directly to add their loved ones to the list, A.C. said, as some names are omitted from media reports due to reporting restrictions.
Messages through Instagram pages for the movement and mass text messages in a WhatsApp group allow the women to keep in touch and to plan larger scale events -- like the synchronized canvassing of French Judicial Buildings across the country earlier this year -- but most of the movement is at the whim of its members as to when and where the art projects will go up.
A.C. explained that most of the collages end up in a city’s downtown core or on major monuments like soccer stadiums in order to gain maximum exposure -- but that smaller towns outside of major urban metropolises were taking part too.
“I think there are 27 groups [operating in France] at the moment” A.C. said, adding that additional groups plan to form in London and Berlin.
A.C. said that women join the Collages Feminicides movement for many reasons, but for her it’s “on a personal level.”
“Like most women I know, I do have certain experience of abuse, I’ve had the luck of never being in a physically abusive romantic relationship… [but] I’ve had close friends who I have seen be involved in violent romantic relationships and I understand the feeling of powerlessness that you can have against that, when you see someone that you love struggling and there is no way to help them,” she said.
A.C. said that she wants to “stay away from generalizations and especially cultural generalizations” when explaining why femicide is so rampant in France, “but that’s hard to do when you’re talking about gender-based violence.”
“I think that France, for all that it‘s a country that is based on very republican and democratic ideals, but it’s still a country that is steeped in, and I would say obsessed with its own tradition,” she said. “Some of those traditions pertain to the way that women are meant to act, the way that women are supposed to play these roles in their family lives.”
A.C. said she has lived in four different countries around the world and that France is “definitely” the country where she has personally experienced and has seen the most verbal, psychological and even physical violence against women.
“France is a country that struggles with feminism and…accepting that into its social model,” A.C. said, citing the tepid reception the #MeToo movement received in the country, as opposed to the considerable culture shift and repercussions in the United States.
But there is hope, A.C. said, highlighting the coverage this year in French media about femicides and public figures coming forward with their stories of abuse and sexual harassment and calling for change.
But progress is slow.
“France is slow to change its models and France is slow to pick up on these social causes, because I think they are so attached to the idea of ‘Frenchness,’ and what French women are,” A.C. said.
As to why the protesters decided to tackle these problems via a street art campaign, A.C. explained that “these [collages] can be around to create dialogue without us having to physically be there…it’s sad but encouraging seeing people stop in front of these things and talking to [strangers] about it.”
A.C. added that since the 2015 state of emergency was declared in France “people have seen how the repression of physical protests have escalated and become more and more violent and more and more dangerous.”
“People are looking for ways to make themselves heard that don’t necessarily include them getting teargassed,” she said.
A.C. said that the group hopes that the culture in France changes, and that the French government will implement legislative changes and other measures to secure women’s safety.
“There are concrete measures that we are trying to get the government to put into place,” A.C. confirmed, which include adding 1,000 new emergency shelters for women to be created by January 2020 and implementing giving a GPS tracker to abuse victims and putting an electronic ankle bracelet on their abusive ex-partners so that the victim can be aware of their location and call police if the need arises.
November 25 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, when the French government is expected to announce in their budget which measures will be implemented and any new legislation to be voted on.
“It’s 2019 and France really likes to tout itself as a really progressive country,” A.C. said. “But then you have these issues at the same time…it’s sort of embarrassing.”
She plans to continue with the movement, and gets encouraged every time the group is approached by women on the streets who say they were once victims of abuse or violence.
“There are some nights where we’re out canvassing and… have been approached by numerous women who are walking home who get really emotional,” A.C. said, adding that for victims of gender-based violence, the project can be “cathartic, even though catharsis isn’t always fun or easy.”