On Tuesday 16 October 1984, four-year-old Grégory Villemin was reported missing, then found dead in the Vologne river in the Vosges region of France with ropes tied around his hand and feet. What followed is a three-decade judicial saga that continues to captivate the public.
Growing up in France in the Nineties, it seemed impossible to me that anyone would be ignorant of the fate of “little Grégory”, as he’s colloquially known. The Grégory case was perhaps France’s first contemporary true-crime saga, fueled by sordid details, tragic twists, and – yes – overly zealous journalists.
The details that I knew, accurately, as a child were that a little boy had been killed, that his parents had received threatening anonymous letters and phone calls prior to the murder, and that no one had ever been convicted. Now, a new, five-part Netflix documentary titled Who Killed Little Grégory? tells the story of the investigation, from the little boy’s death to the confusing limbo we’re left in today. Watching it now, as a 28-year-old woman, is an interesting immersion into a part of my country’s collective consciousness that I was never confronted with in person. It’s also a stark reminder of how profoundly and casually sexist France can be.
From the third episode onward, the series recounts how authorities, having detained then released an original suspect (who was eventually murdered by Grégory’s father), began building a case against the boy’s mother, Christine Villemin. Specifically, a man named Jacques Corazzi (who can be described, depending on whether you live in the US or in the UK, as a police chief or as a superintendent) recounts meeting Grégory’s parents about four months after the murder.
“The first time I see them, I have a double impression,” Corazzi says. “The couple is here. [The boy’s father] Jean-Marie Villemin is destroyed. He’s completely… how can I put it… you’re with him with all your heart. But you have less of a connection with her [the mother]. Why? I don’t know.”
You don’t know? Really? Hundreds of years of sexist stereotypes which are harmful to women, perhaps? No, sure, whatever, it’s a mystery.
Corazzi continues: “Her outfit… She’s wearing black, OK, but it’s a pleasant outfit, shall we say. She’s wearing an extremely tight sweater. In other circumstances, you would almost court her. So I tell myself, she’s less.... She’s almost nice to look at. I mean – for a man, she’s not bad. I think to myself – I would have expected a tearful person, with their hair not done, dressed in a careless manner. That’s not the case here. Of course, that doesn’t mean she’s guilty. But there’s doubt. There’s something you want to elucidate.”
In another episode, Corazzi calls the mother “arousing” and adds that everyone – including the judge in charge of the case – “had something for her”. But of course, Corazzi never reckons with his inappropriate attraction to the young woman who has just lost her son; instead, he uses it as an excuse to suggest she could be a murderer. His theorizing is beyond spurious — it is clearly insulting, at best naive and at worst actively misogynistic — but he pursues it relentlessly.
Disturbingly, even when Christine Villemin reacts with obvious outward grief and distress over the death of her son, it isn’t good enough for Corazzi. In a particularly telling sequence, Corazzi is made to watch a video of Grégory’s funeral during which the mother sobs loudly, calling out her son’s name. In a detached tone, Corazzi comments: “Yeah, it’s Gregory’s funeral, but… It’s a funeral. What can we say about it? I’ve seen a funeral where the only person who cried was the perpetrator. I’m not saying it’s the same here, but…”
This view is echoed by Marie-France Bezzina, a journalist who covered the case at the time, whose response to the same funeral footage is a terse: “What a circus.”
There’s a long history of women being cast as potential murderers because they don’t act the way others, particularly investigators, expect them to. Their bodies and physical appearances tend to be continually brought up despite their complete lack of relevance to the crime. Take, for example, the case of Darlie Routier, a 49-year-old woman currently sitting on Death Row in Texas after being convicted of murdering her five-year-old son Damon in 1996. (Her other son, Devon, was also killed, but she was never charged in that case.) Several books have been written on the Routier case, so suffice to say we do not have time to delve into all the specifics here, but the prosecution has been criticized for the way it built its case against the mother.
Prosecutors, as underlined by a New York Times review of a TV documentary revisiting the investigation, “attacked Ms Routier for spending on jewelry, for playing Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ (the boys’ favorite song, their father says) at their funeral, for having had breast-augmentation surgery”. I’m not saying that Routier is innocent, nor that she’s guilty: I am humble enough to recognise that I do not have the expertise to make that call. What I am saying is that someone’s breast implants have no business being brought up as part of a criminal investigation into the murder of their son.
This all matters, of course, because the justice system’s alienation of women continues to have implications that extend beyond murder cases. Say a woman, for example, comes forward with allegations of sexual harassment against a powerful man but doesn’t press charges. The public (well, part of the public) will usually react by using that fact against her, implying that if the woman isn’t pressing charges, then her accusations cannot be taken seriously.
But it’s time to understand that the justice system has for years given women serious reasons not to trust it. For one, it’s spent decades staring at our breasts, at our tight sweaters, and at our hair, scrutinizing our reactions and finding ways to twist them into sexist, stereotypical narratives. When you put it that way, I wouldn’t ride a subway car alone with the justice system – let alone place my fate in its hands.
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