By Jessica Sutton.
Edited by Patrick McTague.
Content warning: This article contains details of sexual violence and homicide which readers may find distressing.
Valérie is the voice of all those who have been victims of violence, behind closed doors, who we know nothing about.Defence lawyer Nathalie Tomasini.
In March 2016, Valérie Bacot reached breaking point. After decades of abuse by her stepfather-turned-husband, Daniel Polette, she killed him. The case has rocked France, forcing the country to face its horrific record on child abuse and intimate partner violence. Valérie’s story shows the horror abused women go through to survive, and exposes the government’s failure to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence. After what she had been through, sending her to prison seemed cruel. But she still deliberately ended someone’s life. So, how should the criminal justice system deal with women like Valérie?
“One day, he would have killed me”.
This is how Valérie summed up the abuse she suffered at the hands of Polette. Her story, as told in her autobiography Tout le Monde Savait (Everyone Knew), is marked by a litany of state failures. Polette came into Valérie’s life when she was just a child, due to his involvement with her mother, Ms Aubagne. He began sexually assaulting and raping Valérie at the age of 12. She summoned up the courage to tell a teacher at her school, but the state failed to protect her. The French authorities charged Polette with sexual abuse rather than rape, resulting in a far lighter sentence. Despite the proven record of sexual violence perpetrated against Valérie, the authorities allowed Ms Aubagne to take Valérie to visit Polette in prison and didn’t intervene when he returned to live with Valérie and her mother after his release.
The sexual violence resumed. Valérie fell pregnant at age 17 with the first of four children, leading Ms Aubagne to throw her out of the house. Polette then forced Valérie to marry him. The abuse was physical, sexual, and psychological, and Polette often threatened to kill Valérie with the gun he kept in the house. Valérie’s children tried to report their father’s violence to the Police, but nothing was done. In 2016, Valérie was forced into prostitution, and repeatedly raped by clients. Encounters with clients happened in the back of Polette’s van, with him watching through the curtains and giving her orders through an earpiece. Valérie described her life as an unbearable nightmare. Not only had the abuse escalated, but Polette had begun grooming their 14-year-old daughter. After a particularly horrific encounter with a client, Valérie shot Polette with the gun he had so often used to threaten her life. Several of her children helped her to bury his body in a nearby woodland. She was arrested in 2017 on a charge of murder and confessed soon afterwards.
Supporters of Valérie inundated President Emmanuel Macron with calls for her to be acquitted, citing the horrific abuse she suffered and her actions to protect her children. More than 700,000 people eventually signed a petition advocating for her release.
Valérie had already spent a year on remand when the trial took place. In their evidence, Polette’s family members and Valérie’s supporters described him as a “monster” and a serial abuser of women. The defence case was that Valérie was of unsound mind at the time of the murder. The prosecution’s case was that she killed Polette in cold blood.
Valérie was bracing herself for a lengthy term of imprisonment. But, in a shocking turn, the Attorney-General said that although Valérie should be convicted, he did not argue for her to be sent to prison. Valérie collapsed at the news that she would not have to face incarceration. But the threat of a conviction remained. Her last statement to the jury before it retired was an apology, and a word of thanks: “I want to say sorry to my children. Sorry to the children he had before. Sorry to his partners. And thank you to everyone for listening to me.”
After five hours of deliberation, the jury found her guilty. This was a blow, but she was ultimately released by the judge without having to serve any prison time. A sentence of four years was imposed, with three years suspended. Taking into account the year she served on remand before the trial, she was able to be released. A crowd of her supporters and members of the public cheered and cried “Bravo!” as she exited the court.
What to do about women like Valérie?
Many feel that the trial had a just outcome. But there is no clear answer to how legal systems should deal with abused women who kill their abusers. In the first six months of 2021, over 50 women have been killed by current or former partners in France. The vast majority of murders in heterosexual relationships are committed by men. Only a small minority of intimate partner homicides are committed by women. These women are typically in situations similar to Valérie’s – they are the primary victim in the relationship, while their partner is the predominant aggressor. But systems of prosecution do not distinguish between abusive men who murder their partners, and the women who lash out to protect themselves or their children.
Out of 16 cases in New Zealand between 2009–2015 in which the primary aggressor was killed by a female partner, only three women were acquitted. To prove self-defence under section 48 of the Crimes Act 1961, a woman in Valérie’s position must show that she used only a reasonable level of violence in response to an imminent threat. The requirement for the threat to be imminent is notoriously hard to prove in a situation of ongoing abuse. At best, women who kill abusive partners may benefit from jury sympathy and see a murder charge reduced to a manslaughter conviction, or a judge may reduce a sentence where there is undisputed evidence of abuse. So far, little has been done to reform the law in this context, despite a Law Commission report calling for abolition of the imminent threat requirement for self-defence and more education for prosecutors and judges about domestic violence.
In order to do justice by the women in these situations, the decision whether to prosecute is key. Where the primary victim has lashed out at the predominant aggressor, prosecutors should carefully consider the devastating consequences for the primary victim before prosecuting. The prosecutor should investigate and identify the predominant aggressor in the relationship, evaluate the strength of self-defence evidence, and not charge the primary victim where the threshold is reached.
Valérie’s lawyers are now taking a novel step on this issue, by making a claim against France, asserting that the state was negligent in allowing Valérie to be continually harmed by Polette. The original murder trial also has the potential to set an important precedent in France – that abused women should not serve a murder sentence. Lawyer Nathalie Tomasini hopes that the case will legitimise the defence of prior abuse in France, so that women who fight back against male violence are protected. We hope that other countries will follow suit. Governments need to be held accountable for the safety of their citizens. No abused woman should have to experience re-victimisation in an uncaring justice system.
 Family Violence Death Review Committee Fifth Report Data: January 2009 to December 2015 (Health Quality and Safety Commission, 2016) at 27.
 Law Commission Understanding Family Violence (2016) at 102; and Elizabeth Sheehy “Two Nations in a Reform Vacuum over Family Violence” (6 April 2018) Newsroom <www.newsroom.co.nz/2018/04/05/102651/domestic-violence-nz-v-canada-law-reform>.
 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Handbook on Effective Prosecution Responses to Violence against Women and Girls (United Nations, 2014) at 85.
 At 76–80 and 85.