The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

She recounted decades of abuse by her husband in a best-selling book. Now she’s on trial for his murder.

Valérie Bacot, flanked by her family, arrives at the Chalon-sur-Saône Courthouse in central-eastern France. (Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images)
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Valérie Bacot doesn’t deny killing her husband. In fact, she recounted the details of his death in a best-selling book this year, describing exactly how she shot him outside the French village of La Clayette and then buried him in the nearby woods with the help of two of their children.

But Bacot, 40, also claims in the book, “Tout Le Monde Savait (Everyone Knew),” that the killing was the end product of decades of abuse at the hands of Daniel Polette. She accuses her former stepfather of sexually assaulting her starting when she was 12, and eventually forcing her into prostitution.

On Monday, Bacot’s murder trial for Polette’s 2016 death began in the city of Chalon-sur-Saône.

While she has argued that killing Polette, 61, was a desperate act of self-defense, accentuated by fear that he would begin sexually abusing their daughter, French prosecutors say it was a premeditated killing.

The case has riveted France and led to widespread calls for her charges to be dropped, with more than 600,000 people signing one online petition. Critics say her case points to unaddressed problems with domestic violence in France, where at least 55 women have been killed by current or former partners so far in 2021, the Guardian reported.

“It could be argued that it was premeditated, but this was a woman who had been tyrannised her entire life,” Janine Bonaggiunta, one of Bacot’s attorneys, told the Guardian. “He controlled everything and this was the only way she could get out of this situation.”

Bacot’s story reached a wide audience in France with the May release of her book by Fayard, a prominent publishing house in Paris.

In the book, she describes how she was 12 years old when she was first raped by Polette, who was then dating her mother. In 1995, Polette was convicted of assaulting her, the Guardian reported, but returned to her family when he was released from custody a few years later. Her mother welcomed him back, she said.

“He told my mother that he wouldn’t start again. But he did,” she said in court, France 24 reported.

When she became pregnant at 17, she testified, her mother threw her out and she moved in with Polette. “I wanted to keep my child. I had nobody,” she told the court. “Where could I go?”

His abuse soon worsened, she said. Slapping became punching, which turned into choking. Eventually he held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her, she testified, according to Agence France-Presse.

Bacot had three more children with Polette, but told the court that her life with him was “extreme hell,” France 24 reported. In her book, she described living as a prisoner in her home, forbidden to speak with anyone and in constant fear of violent attacks. When he retired from driving trucks, Polette forced her to work as a prostitute, meeting men in the back of a Peugeot van that he had outfitted with a mattress and curtains, she wrote in the book, according to the Guardian.

Bacot said the breaking point came in March 2016, after one of her husband’s clients raped her. She was also concerned, she testified on Monday, because her 14-year-old daughter said Polette had recently made sexually suggestive comments to her, according to AFP.

Using a pistol her husband brought along in case clients became violent, she wrote in the book, she shot him in the back of the neck as he sat in the driver’s seat, and then hid his body nearby with the help of two of her children.

She was arrested in 2017 and admitted to the killing, reported RFI, a French radio broadcaster, and was released pending her trial. Two of her children later received six-month suspended sentences for helping to dispose of Polette’s body.

Bacot faces a potential life sentence in her murder trial, which is expected to run through Friday, AFP reported. Her attorneys have drawn parallels to the case of Jacqueline Sauvage, who was convicted of killing her husband in 2012 and claimed he was extremely abusive. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was pardoned in 2016 by President François Hollande.

“These women who are victims of violence have no protection. The judiciary is still too slow, not reactive enough and too lenient towards the perpetrators who can continue to exercise their violent power,” Bonaggiunta, who also defended Sauvage, told AFP before Bacot’s trial began.

“This is precisely what can push a desperate woman to kill in order to survive,” she said.

Rick Noack contributed to this story.