For almost 50 years French woman Jacqueline Sauvage was subjected to regular beatings, rape and threats of murder by her husband — a man his own daughters condemned as a ‘‘violent, tyrannical, perverse and incestuous man.”
Then, on September 10, 2012, after enduring a morning of vile insults and yet another savage physical attack by the spouse who had controlled her from the time she met him as a teenager, a “lightning strike went off” in Sauvage’s head.
She grabbed a hunting rifle, shut her eyes and fired three shots. The gunfire killed her aggressor, Norbert Marot — a bully and sadist a French provincial court heard had instilled fear in the people of the small rural village where he ran a failing transport company, and where “everybody knew” he was regularly bashing his wife. “Our father died and for me, it was a relief,” one of the couple’s daughters said, after Sauvage went to trial for murder in 2014.
Despite pleas from her lawyers, experts, family and friends that she acted in legitimate self-defense, because of the post-traumatic stress syndrome associated with victims of long-term domestic violence — a defense not formally recognized by the French courts — Sauvage was condemned on appeal earlier this month in her native Loire Valley to ten years in prison.
“Thank you,” said a neighbor who testified at the appeal trial, in comments directed towards the accused. “You have done us a service; we can sleep easily.”
Now the 68-year-old convicted murderer has only one hope: a presidential pardon. Extremely rarely granted — what the French call la grâce presidentielle was last extended by Jacques Chirac in 1996 — it dates from the Ancien Regime, when monarchs were the last recourse to justice for their subjects.
The request must be filed by family or close friends, but even before Sauvage’s daughters Sylvie, Carole and Fabienne lodged their pardon application before Christmas, a grassroots campaign to free the mother of three girls and one son, had lit up social networks in France. More than 217,000 have signed an online change.org petition imploring the French head of state to intervene and release Sauvage from prison. Artists, lawyers, women’s activists, women recovering from abuse, politicians and the media have also joined the push which has quickly evolved into a vociferous movement for wide-ranging legal reform.
Center-left daily newspaper Liberation headlined its front page just before Christmas day with the demand: “Monsieur le President Free Jacqueline Sauvage.”
Although the request for grâce presidentielle is said to be on the desk of Francois Hollande, there has, as yet, been no official response.
One of Sauvage’s daughters explained to Women in the World why her family is begging the president to free their mother whom they declared “suffered throughout her life as a part of this couple with our father, under his control.”
“We don’t have any other solution,” says Sylvie Marot, speaking also for her two sisters. “This is our last hope because the appeal trial did not lead to her liberation or a reduction of her sentence, despite numerous testimonies from neighbors, friends, people from the village and from the Mayor.
“The court did not understand the distress, the powerlessness and despair of our mother.
“The court did not accept the actions of our mother, who could not find any other way to put an end to this daily violence.”
Marot gave painful testimony in her mother’s appeal trial, revealing that when she and her sisters were only 6 and 7 years old her father would wait until their mother left for work so he could come and “rub himself up against them” in their beds. Then as they got a little older he began raping his daughters — assaults the girls never spoke of to their mother or to authorities, so terrified were they that their father would kill Sauvage as punishment.
For her courage in speaking out against her father’s abuse, Marot found herself being cross-examined as to why she had never made an official police complaint against her father.
The same logic was applied to Sauvage, whom prosecutors pointed out never made any legal case to local authorities about her husband’s relentless abuse. Yet Sauvage had intergenerational memories of abuse and cover-ups, after seeing her own mother have her nose broken by her father, and the silence that followed.
Still, Sauvage was well known at the local hospital emergency unit, where she turned up four times between 2007 and 2012, when she killed her husband.
The mother of four found herself in a situation of dependence which was entrenched over the years by her husband who “completely dominated her. She had become his thing. She was under his control,” her attorney Janine Bonaggiunta pleaded at the appeal trial.
Nathalie Tomasini, Sauvage’s other attorney said her client knew ‘‘better than anyone that he could, that very evening, make a reality of the death threats he had made to her whole life.”
Tomasini asked the jury to take into account the ‘‘irreversible consequences of violence against women.’’
Yet according to the lawyer who represented the prosecution, Frédéric Chevallier, there could be no “license to kill.”
“Undoubtedly she reacted to his umpteenth act of violence but she deliberately killed her husband … self-defense cannot be proven. She should have responded to her husband’s violence with a proportionate act that was immediate and necessary. Faced with a punch which resulted in her being on sick leave for three days, she shot three bullets. Three shots in the back is just not admissible.”
Chevallier’s legal argument was ridiculed on social media where outraged women, like feminist activist Caroline de Haas, fumed: “So what is a proportional response to 47 years of rape, beatings, torture and the rape of your children?”
Others were shocked at the severity of the jury-led appeal decision, rather than a more humane reduction in the decade-long sentence, in recognition of Sauvage’s near-half century of physical and psychological agony.
The case has exposed a dangerous absence of nuance in the French legislation addressing such matters. “The problem with the French law of self-defense is that it too restrictive,” Tomasini told Women in the World. “There are three criteria, there must be an attack, then an act of riposte in self-defense and thirdly the two acts must be proportional.”
According to Tomasini when the law was set down it referred to two men of about the same size who didn’t know each other, although with Sauvage and other battered women who kill their spouses “we are in a context which, by definition, is a relationship of domination so there is no proportionality”.
“The law has never been updated. We are arguing for a redefinition which takes into account the difference in physical size, the sex, the domestic relationship of violence between the protagonists, and the psychological state of the victim,” Tomasini added. “According to the experts, a woman who has lived with violence for years is in a post-traumatic state. The more you stay with a man and the more you are violently attacked the less you are likely to escape ‘normally.’ A woman, in order to suffer less and anaesthetize herself, registers this violence in one part of her brain and she closes the door.
“Then one day when there is an act of violence that goes too far there is what we call an explosion of the post-traumatic memory being unleashed — and then you have the transition to an act of violence.”
With Bonaggiunta, Tomasini runs France’s first dedicated domestic violence law service and firm, where all clients are obliged to be assessed and treated by a psychologist as well as advised by their lawyers. The pair are campaigning with politicians, including center-right parliamentarian Valerie Boyer, for a change to the strict legal rules required to prove self-defense for a battered woman. “Before being a ‘criminal’ Jacqueline Sauvage is firstly a victim,” Boyer says.
“We were inspired by the Canadian criminal code,” Tomasini says. “Since 1990 there has been the presumption of self-defense once experts have shown that battered woman’s syndrome is in evidence, and then since 2012 it has been inscribed in the criminal code. They are very advanced and always have been.”
“France has a problem you don’t have in the U.S. Everything that is psychological is trivialized here — we don’t take it into account or see it as important enough. In police commissariats we don’t think about psychologists and post-traumatic stress and there is no formation of experts, yet in the U.S. who doesn’t have their therapist?”.
While it may offer domestic violence victims more legal options to plead self-defense than in France (depending on the states that recognize the battered woman’s defense legislatively and others in common law), the U.S. still extends far more largesse to men.
“The rub is that the ‘stand your ground’ defense comes into play in some states and for men, usually any fear of imminent violence justifies the type of aggression that would end up in murder,” says San Francisco-based attorney Fiona Clark, an international specialist in domestic violence law.
“Typically women have to prove that they have learned helplessness over a period of months or years and that they were justified after years of abuse, in being the aggressor when they ‘cracked.’
“The Canadian position is much better for women, where there is almost an onus in their favor.”
While her cause goes international, the groundswell of support in France and elsewhere has given hope again to Sauvage. “She is hoping for a quick solution like a reduction of her sentence or conditional liberty,” Marot says. “After the shock at the result of the appeal trial, she is a bit better, she has taken hope again from the many letters she has received, and all these messages of hope.”
Beyond the personal case of her mother, Marot feels strongly that France should reform its laws: “We hope that this affair will awaken consciences and push for a change in the law, so that we can have specialized courts for domestic violence.
“Recourse to justice here is very complicated, and women who have been beaten must show every proof in order for their aggressor to be put in prison for a term that is long enough to dissuade him from starting again.
“This state of affairs discourages many women from reacting or acting. They are afraid of reprisals from their partner or another aggressor. They don’t say anything they are so terrified of the consequences, such as was the case with our mother.”
“For a country like France that is a model for the rest of the world, it isn’t right that we should be so behind when it comes to protecting battered women.”