In 1972, Marie-Claire Chevalier's trial paved the way for the legalization of abortion in France, much like Roe v. Wade did in the U.S. soon after. But as the Supreme Court overturned this landmark decision on the other side of the Atlantic, where do abortion rights now stand in France?
PARIS — When Marie-Claire Chevalier died in January, French newspapers described her role in the struggle for abortion rights as an important part of what’s become the rather distant past. Yet since the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States, Chevalier’s story has returned to the present tense.
A high school student in 1971, Chevalier was raped by a classmate, and faced an unwanted pregnancy. With the help of her mother and three other women, the 16-year-old obtained an abortion, which was illegal in France. With all five women facing arrest, Marie-Claire’s mother Michèle decided to contact French-Tunisian lawyer Gisèle Halimi who had defended an Algerian activist raped and tortured by French soldiers in a high-profile case.
Marie-Claire bravely agreed to turn her trial into a platform for all women prosecuted for seeking an abortion. Major social figures testified on her behalf, from feminist activist Simone de Beauvoir to acclaimed poet Aimé Césaire. The prominent Catholic doctor Paul Milliez, said, “I do not see why us, Catholics, should impose our moral to all French people.”
Ultimately, the trial was a catalyst for mobilizing public opinion and decriminalizing abortion through the Veil Law in 1975, two years after Roe v. Wade.
The reversal of Roe on June 24 has set off a reckoning about the state of abortion rights in other countries around the world. In France, popular opinion appears to be quite solidly behind keeping abortion legal and accessible, and the judicial branch cannot overturn current laws as it did in the U.S. Indeed several members of French Parliament, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, have proposed reinforcing the provisions of the Veil Law by adding it to the nation’s Constitution.
Still, abortion rights may not be quite as safe in France as they might first appear.
Conservative media steps in
The suggestion to add the Veil Law to the Constitution was supported by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and 81% of French people polled. In fact, according to a 2021 Ipsos poll, France was the third country with the highest support for the legalization of abortion after Sweden and the Netherlands, with 81% in favor of it.
Anti-abortion activist groups do exist in France, but they are marginal. The most visible of them is “En Marche Pour La Vie” (March for Life). A more likely rise would come via mass media. Often compared to Rupert Murdoch, French billionaire mogul Vincent Bolloré has invested in media that is increasingly in line with his traditionalist Catholic, right-wing stances, including several television channels, a radio station and a publishing company. His entertainment tv channel C8 aired the anti-abortion movie “Unplanned” in prime time, while radical Catholic journalists and anti-abortion guests regularly appear on his right-wing 24h-news channel CNews.
Anti-same-sex-marriage activist Ludovine de La Rochère was quick to hail the existence of a “debate” about abortion in the U.S., lamenting what she called the “taboo” surrounding this question in France.
A protester in Marseille holds a placard reading, "The crime is making abortion illegal" on July 2, 2022.
The Le Pen factor
It is indeed true that calling abortion into question would not have been so easy to do on French television a few years ago. Beyond the media operators, it is also politicians, notably Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN) since the mid-2010s. In 2012, she condemned “the use of abortion as a means of contraception” and threatened the ending of state funding.
Still, there are increased rumblings on the political right to limit abortion, including Le Pen’s RN allies in the European Parliament who repeatedly oppose securing abortion access for women across Europe when this right was taken away from Polish and American women.
Would she keep her promises regarding abortion and other social rights if she ever came to power?
And the RN is not the only French party taking on the issue. Earlier this year, the liberal-conservative Republican deputies voted against the extension of the 12-week-limit on abortion access at the French National Assembly. The issue has also divided the current ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron who himself declared he was opposed to the limit.
Anne-Cécile Mailfert, president of the feminist group Fondation des Femmes, warned that even popular rights can be fragile: “It will only take for us in France to have a parliament with a conservative majority, and abortion could be banned,” she said in urging that the Veil Law be written into the Constitution.
We are still far from this reality, but the number of RN deputies did jump from 8 to 89 out of 577 in the last legislative elections, and Marine Le Pen has been a finalist in the past two presidential elections. Would she keep her promises regarding abortion and other social rights if she ever came to power?
Gisèle Halimi with UNESCO's Director General Amadou Mahtar M'Bow in 1975.
Youth for life
But amid an increasingly polarized electorate, just like in the U.S., the French youth vote for the far-right has been growing. Ultra-conservative youths stand among the ranks of anti-abortion groups, as testified by the creation of the LeJeune Académie this year to “recruit the leaders of the pro-life movement.” La Marche Pour La Vie’s spokeswoman, Aliette Espieux, 22, writes in her Twitter bio: “I am from the generation that will abolish abortion.”
Those rights are never to be taken for granted
And at the same time, abortion access is declining due to geographical inequalities, as 130 centers providing abortion services have been closed over the past 15 years, according to French Planned Parenthood.If far-right figures tend not to exhibit their anti-abortion stance openly, they find other pretexts to attack the association and call for an end to its subsidies or even for its dissolution. The words of perhaps France’s most famous feminist Simone de Beauvoir have been widely shared after June 24. “Never forget that it only takes one political, economic or religious crisis for women's rights to be put in jeopardy. Those rights are never to be taken for granted, you must remain vigilant throughout your life."
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