Woman to stand trial in France for killing stepfather after years of abuse
On Monday, a French woman, Valérie Bacot, will walk into a court to be tried for killing her stepfather turned husband. She has admitting shooting him dead and believes she should be punished.
In her defence, she is expected to tell the the hearing at at Chalon-sur-Saône in Burgundy how Daniel “Dany” Polette made her life hell from the day he raped her when she was 12, to the day he died 24 years later while prostituting her.
Bacot, who had four children with her alleged abuser, will say how she was convinced Polette would kill them all and how everyone knew he was a violent sexual predator but nobody said or did anything. And she will tell how when the children went to the gendarmes – twice – to report the abuse, they were told to go away and tell their terrified mother to come in herself.
She will say she had nowhere to go, nobody to turn to, no money and was so under Polette’s control she had no idea how to escape her daily terror of threats and violence.
The trial will once again shine a light on domestic violence in France and comes after a week in which three women were killed by former partners in a country that has one of the highest rates of femicide – classed here as the murder of a woman by a current or former partner – in Europe. So far this year at least 55 women have been killed by a current or ex partner in France.
In May, Fayard, one of France’s best-known publishing houses, published Bacot’s story: Tout le Monde Savait (Everyone Knew). The book makes grim reading: 198 pages detailing the relentless misery that began when Bacot, whose alcoholic mother and largely absent father had divorced, was 12 and stepfather Polette forced her to have sex. At the time she says she had no idea what he was doing and only realised after a biology lesson at school.
Polette was jailed for incest in 1995, but was allowed to return to the family home after three years and continued to rape Bacot. “Nobody seemed to find it bizarre that Daniel came back to live with us as if nothing had happened,” she writes. “Everyone knew but nobody said anything.”
Soon he was raping her again. One day she heard her mother say: “I don’t give a damn as long as she doesn’t become pregnant.” At 17 she did become pregnant and Polette installed her in a flat as his wife. Three more children followed, along with almost daily beatings.
Bacot writes that she and the children lived in fear of provoking Polette’s ire. He broke her nose, hit her over the head with a hammer, arranged for her to have lesbian encounters, which he filmed, and kept her a virtual prisoner. She was not allowed to speak to anyone when she went out shopping and he had his friends and relatives spy on her, she recounts.
Then Polette decided he would retire and prostitute Bacot. She recalls her youngest child finding a card Polette had made and asking what “escort girl” meant. Polette pimped his wife in in the back of his Peugeot 806 that he fitted with a mattress, while spying on her with clients and giving her instructions via an earpiece. He had a pistol, he said, just in case a client turned nasty. If Bacot didn’t do what he demanded, he beat her, she told investigators.
On 13 March, after she was raped by a client, she took the pistol her husband hid between the car seats and shot him.
“This is a woman who has been destroyed and devastated, not just by the lack of maternal love, the rapes, the blows, the denigration, the prostitution but also and above all by the indifference and the omerta of society,” write Bacot’s lawyers, Janine Bonaggiunta and Nathalie Tomasini, in the preface.
“From her earliest age she was put through terrible things without anyone, not even those close to her, blinking an eye. They ignored her distress and her ordeal, which could be read on her face. The story of her life is deeply distressing.”
The case echoes that of Jacqueline Sauvage who became a cause célèbre for campaigners against violence towards women and girls. Sauvage was married for 47 years to a violent alcoholic who she said raped and beat her and her three daughters and abused her son. In September 2012, the day after her son hanged himself, Sauvage shot her husband.
Tomasini represented Sauvage and appealed for the court to “push the limits of self-defence applied to situations of marital violence”, but she was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 2016, after three years in jail, she was pardoned by the then president, François Hollande, and released.
On Monday, the public prosecutor will argue that Bacot’s act was premeditated. In the book Bacot says she feared Polette was planning to abuse their teenage daughter and had told herself: “This has to stop.” Bonaggiunta says the defence will argue Bacot shot her husband because “it was a question of survival”.
“It could be argued that it was premeditated, but this was a woman who had been tyrannised her entire life, he controlled everything and this was the only way she could get out of this situation,” Bonaggiunta told the Guardian.
“The legal texts are clear: she killed him. There is no legal text to protect women like this who have been battered for years and for this to be taken into consideration as there is in Canada. It’s clear she’d been repeatedly hit and her brain was not functioning properly at the time. She was certainly in an altered state. To a certain extent it could be argued that she had no choice.”
In her book, Bacot says she is often asked why she did not leave her husband.
“I think if you haven’t lived this kind of life it’s difficult to understand. When your daily life is a series of blows, threats, insults and humiliations you end up being incapable of thought … your partner has brainwashed you. And you think everything he says is true. You think the problem is with you and not him and that you deserve everything you get,” she explains.
Bonaggiunta, who specialises in domestic violence cases, said there was an “inertia” in society over helping women and their children escape their abusers.
“When I heard this story my first thought was that this started with a little girl who was not helped, who was a victim of violence of which her parents were complicit,” she said. “She killed him but she was not a murderer. She was the victim.”
Bacot’s trial will last a week.