When the police knocked on her door in the early hours of December 23, 2020, Valérie (a pseudonym used to protect her identity) instinctively knew that it had something to do with her ex-husband. The charming, funny, and seductive man she thought she married in 2012, it turned out, was a violent and paranoid master manipulator, convinced of the impending end of the world, and on whom he relied on by collecting canned goods, guns, and military radios prepared communicate after the grids collapse. Since she left him in 2013, Frédérik Limol had repeatedly threatened to murder her and her young daughter. According to Valerie’s lawyer Wissam Bayeh, she reported him to the police at least three times and warned them on other occasions that he was armed and dangerous. But like a modern Cassandra, her complaints fell on deaf ears. “It was a permanent nightmare,” said Bayeh. “He swore he would poison their lives and he succeeded.”
In the early hours of that dark December morning, Limol made up for its threat of violence. Only Valérie wasn’t the target. A few hours before the police arrived at Valerie’s door to take her and her daughter to safety, Limol shot and killed four police officers while responding to an emergency call about domestic violence at his home a few miles outside the tiny village of Saint-Just in central France . “Law enforcement suddenly discovered that violent men can be violent with anyone, not just their wives or girlfriends,” said Suzy Rojtman, spokeswoman for the National Collective for Women’s Rights, a coalition of feminist groups, trade unions and political parties.
One woman – Limol’s youngest partner – sat on the roof of her large stone house while he walked across the grounds wearing a bulletproof vest and an AR-15. He shot the responding officers, set the house on fire and fled in a four-wheel drive vehicle. Auxiliary police found him less than a mile down the street later that morning. He had crashed his car into a tree and then turned a Glock pistol on himself. The woman survived the ordeal, but three police officers did not.
The news quickly spread across France, where gun violence is relatively rare. The regional newspaper La Montagne, which just two days earlier had published a full article about the conviction of a man for firing two shots in the air, had a single word on the front cover of the December 24th issue: “Carnage” with a picture at the top of a military helicopter hovering over the crime scene. National media made headlines reminiscent of the “war scene” in Saint-Just, which was soon confirmed by international media such as the Guardian and the New York Times. The news broadcaster TF1 reported extensively on the growing dangers that law enforcement is facing in France.
In these Hollywood-like scenes, the women Limol terrorized were banished in small pieces. Her more worldly stories of intimate partner abuse were dwarfed by the brazen act of public violence that followed. “What sparked this violence against the police was domestic violence and we hardly talk about it,” said Rojtman.
While data specific to France are limited, the link between domestic violence and public violence is well documented elsewhere. In the United States, in more than half of the mass shootings between 2009 and 2018, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member along with others. A US study from 1980 to 2006 found that domestic violence calls resulted in more than 4,000 assaults by officials and an average of six deaths each year. (The French government data on police injuries and deaths does not indicate the type of call.)
In 2019, 146 women were killed by an intimate partner in France, making it one of the most dangerous countries for women in Europe after Northern Ireland and Germany. While women protest on November 25th each year on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the term “femicide” – the murder of women based on their gender – has become widespread, the threat of gender violence is still widely recognized out of the way, as is not the case in beautiful villages like Saint-Just. A news segment from France2 following the Dec. 23 killings illustrated this well: while it included domestic violence as part of its coverage of the Limol affair, its focus was on distant violence on the French island of Réunion off the coast of Madagascar . Footage from a police station showed white police officers processing black couples accused of domestic violence.
“There is a real blockade in France,” said Rojtman. Their collective was born in 1996 after a 40,000-strong feminist protest against the decision of the then-incoming government to grant amnesty to anti-abortion activists. However, she said violence against women had failed to mobilize women like abortion.
France is the birthplace of “courtly love” and is revered worldwide as the cradle of seduction. Rojtman believes these cultural touchstones could prevent a more aggressive response to gender-based violence. She refers to the now famous letter from 100 high-profile French women condemning the #MeToo movement as an attempt to impede women’s sexual freedom. And it was only in January of this year that the French Senate passed a law setting a consent age: 13 years.
France’s opposition to tougher crackdown on gender-based violence contrasts with nearby Spain, which passed landmark law in 2004 that established tougher penalties for offenders and made prevention of gender-based violence a priority. Rojtman’s collective drafted a similar bill in 2006 and submitted it to the French government. Although some of the proposed measures were incorporated into a 2010 law to protect women from abusive partners, most have been discarded. What laws exist, she said: “Don’t go far enough or they won’t be applied.”
In some cases, they can be manipulated to further harass survivors. Before his death, Limol had brought proceedings against Valérie alleging that she had violated his parental rights by failing to inform him of a change of address. “It has been the trend for some time now to talk about things like ‘the year against violence’, action to combat gender-based violence, the word ‘femicide’ and so on,” said Bayeh. “But in reality nothing changes.”
The perception that intimate partner violence is a private family issue runs deep. “People close their eyes,” said Natalie Conte, who runs a bakery in Ambert, the town of 7,000 where the murdered police were headquartered. The city’s residents were blind from the shooting. “Knowing that they are no longer here is traumatic,” added Conte. “And Saint-Just, where it happened, it’s so small, it’s a tiny village, we know most of the people there. It’s just shocking. “
A few miles down the road, Saint-Just is a rural idyll where American films tend to drop discontented writers in search of inspiration, a cluster of stone houses with painted wooden shutters that surround a squat stone church, and in front of them a memorial to the lost Fighters of the village: two names for WWII, 40 for WWI.
On a snowy morning in January, three men in their sixties, the only ones outside, talked playfully about the village’s dwindling numbers (up to halfway in winter; many of the houses are summer homes for people from the regional capital, Clermont-Ferrand) ) and the type of stone the houses are built from (limestone, not volcanic rock, as further south in the region). But they politely declined to comment on the events of December 23rd. Limol was a newcomer and an outsider. they didn’t know him, they said. They are tired of the press that has flooded their otherwise peaceful village in recent weeks.
“That’s the way it is for the pilgrimage,” said one, jokingly pointing down the street to the remains of Limol’s house: a blackened stone carcass with a burned-off terracotta roof.