Feminists paper Paris with stark posters decrying domestic abuse
By Constant Méheut
On a recent mild night, a squad of four young women wandered through a peaceful neighborhood in eastern Paris, armed with a bucket of glue, a paintbrush and backpacks loaded with posters.
They were looking for surfaces to paper with a stark message.
“There, it’s not bad, is it?” said Astrid Tenon, wearing all black, as she pointed to a 20-foot-long wall, just east of the Marais neighborhood. Her comrade in arms, Chloé Madesta, holding a bucket, nodded.
A well-choreographed operation immediately started: First, a woman brushed some glue over the wall, then a second woman pasted up page after page, while a third patted each piece down with another layer of glue.
After less than seven minutes, the wall bore the words: “You said you loved me, but it was still rape.”
For about a year, posters denouncing sexual abuse and femicides — killing women because of their gender — have popped up by the hundreds in Paris, despite the fact that posting on public walls is considered vandalism and is illegal.
The posters are the work of feminist activists who, critical of the French government’s response to the growing problem of domestic violence, have taken to the streets with a large-scale poster campaign aimed at raising awareness of violent crimes carried out against women by their current or former partners.
“Our goal is to bring these facts before the eyes, so that one cannot look away,” Madesta said. “Because this violence always remains in the shadows.”
Chilling slogans reading “Dad killed Mom” or “She leaves him, he kills her” have been pasted on the sandstone facades in the city’s center. A “Silence is not consent” statement stands on a canal bridge in northern Paris. Longer messages recounting the death of women at the hand of their partners have spread out along tunnels near the outskirts of the city.
The posters have gradually become a fixture of the capital’s landscape, so common that many Parisians have walked past at least several of them.
The women want the messages “to burst into the daily, the ordinary life,” Madesta said. “That is where this violence takes place.”
The messages have also become an unlikely battleground over who owns the streets. Posters are regularly torn off or splattered with paint by passers-by, but the activists fix the damage, restoring the words.
The posters draw much of their strength from a bold graphic identity of black, capital letters painted onto white sheets of paper: simple, sober and instantly recognizable.
“With this style, we are looking for the crude side of the message, the literality,” Madesta said. “There is no metaphor in what we paste, there is no poetry.”
The postering technique is simple and inexpensive, helping explain why the messages have sprung seemingly everywhere, so quickly.
The campaign is the work of a new feminist group, “Les Colleuses,” or “the Gluers,” begun by Marguerite Stern, who, in the summer of 2019, put out a call on social networks. Dozens of women responded. Now some 1,500 activists have joined the postering operations.
“I think it has something to do with Paris,” Stern said of the strong response to her initial call. “It’s a city where there are a lot of young women, students, a large activist network.”
The activists say papering walls not only enables them to publicly expose a reality, domestic violence, that is often relegated to the private sphere, but also allows them to reclaim a space — the street — where many women feel vulnerable.
But the operations themselves are not without risk.
As Tenon was pasting up her third poster of the night, teaming up with Anne-Elisabeth Ropartz, they heard what sounded like a police siren.
“Oh no!” said Ropartz, 24, standing on tiptoes to paste a half-completed poster. It turned out the sirens came from an ambulance that raced past the group.
“The situation is increasingly tense,” said Tenon, 26, a drama coach who said she has experienced years, of harassment by men in the street.
Although the authorities at first turned a blind eye, they have started to crack down, with more activists stopped by the police recently. The maximum fine for vandalism can reach $4,500.
Some pedestrians have verbally confronted the activists.
“It causes a strong irritation, but that’s precisely what’s great about it,” said Madesta, 27, whose clothing was stained with glue. “It means that our fight and our determination is starting to get things moving.”
In the eastern Paris neighborhood where some of the feminists gathered on the recent night, the group found a spot for their work on a faded gray wall.
One man shouted “Police! Police!” upon seeing the women put up the posters. But other local residents leaned out of their apartment windows and expressed support.
Khalid Bakari, a 42-year-old wholesaler sitting casually on a bench near the wall, was unsure about the effectiveness of the women’s fight.
“It can change things just as it can change nothing,” Bakari said.
Last year, 146 women in France were killed by their current or former partners, according to government data, an increase of 21% from 2018. In November, the government introduced new measures to combat the problem, like more education and more social workers in police stations. Activists say the efforts do not go far enough and are underfunded.
Thanks to social networks, the postering movement has spread to many other French cities and to Belgium and Italy.
Madesta said she used to fear the streets until she started using them as a platform for activism. In late 2019, she pasted her own story as the daughter of an alcoholic father who beat her and her mother.
Pasting messages denouncing domestic violence “is a mechanism that is so empowering and that allows you to change your relationship with the world, with others, with the street,” Madesta said.
Tenon agreed. “It’s silly,” she said, “but from the moment we have our bucket, our glue and our paintbrush, we feel invincible.”