‘Extraordinary moment’: the 1970s abortion case that changed French law

Five decades ago, a lawyer convinced a French court to acquit a teenage girl who illegally terminated her pregnancy after being raped, a landmark case that would pave the way for the right to abortion in France.

'Extraordinary moment': the 1970s abortion case that changed French law
Protests outside the court in Bobigny in 1972. Photo by AFP

On the 50th anniversary of the case on November 8th, 1972, French president Emmanuel Macron’s office released a statement saying: “Half a century after this great victory of a few women for all the others, the President reaffirms his attachment to this major conquest for their freedom.

“At a time when so many women are still deprived of this right, when countries are taking it away from them or challenging it, France will continue to tirelessly defend it and support those who, throughout the world, are fighting to obtain it.”

Marie-Claire Chevalier was 16 when a boy the same age attacked her and made her pregnant. Her mother, an employee of the Paris public transport authority, helped her find a backstreet abortion.

But her rapist informed on her and she was ordered to stand trial at a children’s court in the Paris suburb of Bobigny.

Her mother and three others were also charged with conspiring to commit the illegal abortion.

Lawyer Gisele Halimi took on their defence, and helped sway public opinion by enlisting celebrities such as feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir to testify.

On October 11th, 1972, Chevalier was acquitted, a verdict whose momentous impact would lead parliament to legalise abortions  two years later.

The case was the ideal opportunity “to speak out, over the heads of the magistrates, to public opinion and to the country to denounce the law,” Halimi told journalist Annick Cojean for a 2020 book about her life.

She also had the backing of fellow feminists fed up with a law that disproportionately punished women of modest means who could not afford to travel abroad for a legal termination.

A few days before the trial, they had gathered for a peaceful protest in central Paris.

It was “a trial against injustice, the trial of a woman from an underprivileged background who could not go to England or Sweden to have an abortion in the best conditions,” recalled Claudine Monteil, a historian and retired diplomat who took part in the protests, when she was 22.

A massive security force was deployed and many demonstrators received “punches” and “truncheon blows” as police detained 54 people, Le Monde newspaper wrote at the time.

“They hit us, pulled our hair. It was terrible: There was screaming, women falling on the ground, a young woman who was almost killed,” Monteil said.

But the authorities made a mistake, she said, since the brutal crackdown only intensified the public focus on Chevalier’s case, and activists massed outside the courthouse when the trial began.

“I could hear the crowd outside shouting… ‘We’ve all aborted,’ ‘Free Marie-Claire,’ or even ‘England for the rich, prison for the poor’,” Halimi said in her book.

She also recalled, “The anger I felt in front of these men about to judge us and who knew nothing of the life of a woman.”

At around 11 am, the protesters tried to break through the police barrier and force their way into the closed proceedings, before being pushed back.

Just an hour and a half later, Chevalier emerged from the courthouse, acquitted.

“I was scared,” she told the crowd, while Halimi declared, “We put the abortion ban on trial.”

Several weeks later, on November 8th, Halimi was back in a different court to defend Chevalier’s mother Michele, two of her colleagues and the person who carried out the abortion.

She again called to the stand as witnesses famous actresses, a Nobel Prize-winning doctor and de Beauvoir, author of “The Second Sex”, who took the court’s male judges to task.

“She lectured them on society’s hypocrisy, on how women were being treated,” she said. “For us, it was wonderful to see judges drop their gaze like little boys. It was an extraordinary moment to see judges not dare criticise Simone de Beauvoir”.

In her statements, Halimi attacked a law that she said discriminated against the poorer classes.

Had the court ever tried “the wife of a high-ranking official, of a famous doctor, or of a corporate executive? You always try the same women, the Mrs Chevaliers” of this world, she said.

“This archaic law cannot survive. It goes against women’s freedom.”

Chevalier’s mother and the person who carried out the abortion were handed suspended sentences, the two others acquitted.

But for Halimi, the victory was clear. “This ruling is an irreversible step towards a change of the law,” she said outside the courthouse.

Just over two years later, in January 1975, lawmakers voted to legalise abortion.

This autumn, parliament is due to debate enshrining the right to abortion in the French constitution. 

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French protest pension reform again as unions threaten to step up action

Protesters once again took to the streets in towns and cities across France on Tuesday to call for the government to scrap its proposed pension reform as fresh strikes brought widespread disruption on transport.

French protest pension reform again as unions threaten to step up action

The third day of union-backed demonstrations since January 19th was set to test momentum for the protest movement which has vowed to block Macron’s bid to raise the retirement age.

The head of the hardline CGT union, Philippe Martinez, warned that more “numerous, massive and rolling” strikes were coming if the government did not drop the plan.

“If the government keeps on refusing to listen then of course things will have to be ratcheted up,” he said, as the demonstration in Paris got underway.

French leftist party La France Insoumise (LFI) leader Jean-Luc Melenchon (C) addresses media ahead of the start of the demonstrations on the third day of nationwide rallies against a deeply unpopular pensions overhaul at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on February 7, 2023. (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

Macron put raising the retirement age and encouraging the French to work more at the heart of his re-election campaign last year, but polls estimate that two-thirds of people are against the changes.

Lawmakers began debating the reform, which would see the age for a full pension raised from 62 to 64 and the mandatory number of years of work extended for a full pension, during a stormy session in parliament on Monday.

Mobilisations across the country

But turnout was trending downwards on Tuesday with the hardline CGT union saying almost two million people protested nationwide compared with its estimate of 2.8 million last week.

It said 400,000 people were protesting in Paris compared with 500,000 on January 31st and 400,000 on January 19th.

The interior ministry said police counted 757,000 people protesting across France, also fewer than previously.

French 24-hour news channel BFMTV reported that more than 200 rallies against the pension reform had been organised across the country on Tuesday.

Protesters gather at Place de l’Opera prior to the start of the demonstration (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

The crowds so far have been the largest anti-government protests since 2010, during pension reform by right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

There were tensions in the western city of Nantes where protesters clashed with security forces who used tear gas pellets, an AFP photographer said.

Protesters in Nantes in western France shrouded in teargas face off with law enforcement during a demonstration on the third day of nationwide rallies against pension reform (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP)

In Paris, French daily Le Parisien reported that within an hour of the march beginning, more than 2,200 people had already been subject to police checks.

Hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said Macron had to take account of the mobilisation on the streets.

“Unless he has become completely authoritarian, you need to be reasonable in a democracy,” he said, accusing Macron of trying to start his five-year term with a “show of force”.

The impacts of strike action 

Trains and the Paris metro again faced “severe disruptions”, while cancellations at Orly airport south of the capital were expected to total one in five.

The overall level of disruption, including in schools, was estimated to be lower than on the previous two days of action.

According to Franceinfo, 25 percent of French national rail workers walked out on Tuesday, in contrast to 36 percent during the previous day of action on January 31st. As for teachers, the French ministry of education estimated to Franceinfo that about 14.17 teachers were out on strike, compared to 25.92 percent on January 31st (based on parts of the country not currently on holiday). 

Nevertheless, around half of long-distance trains were running, the state railway company said.

Railway workers hold a banner as they protest against pension reform a general assembly of railway workers on the third day of nationwide rallies organised since the start of the year, against a deeply unpopul at Gare de Lyon train station in Paris on February 7, 2023. (Photo by Sameer Al-Doumy / AFP)

Another day of action is planned by unions on Saturday although with train unions calling for protests rather than strikes, disruption may be less severe. 

“It’s ok, it’s manageable,” Sylvain Magnan, a 23-year-old told AFP at the main station in the city of Marseille on the Mediterranean. “I just took a later train.”

Two unions representing rail workers, the CGT and Sud-Rail had also threatened renewable strike action from mid-February onwards. 

“I don’t feel that the guys are ready to go on a renewable strike at the moment”, train driver and member of the CGT chapter representing rail workers, CGT-Cheminots, Thierry Milbeo, told Le Parisien, referencing his fellow rail workers.

As for oil refineries, approximately one in two TotalEnergies workers were out on strike during the third round of walkouts, the company said, but stocks at petrol stations are sufficiently high to handle any temporary pause in deliveries.

The situation in French parliament

Macron’s proposals would bring France closer into line with its European neighbours, most of which have retirement ages of 65 or higher.

But the government has struggled to defend the overhaul as necessary or fair, given that the system is currently in balance and that low-skilled workers are said by many economists to bear the brunt of the changes.

“It’s reform or bankruptcy,” Public Accounts Minister Gabriel Attal said in parliament on Monday, leading to criticism from opponents that he was exaggerating.

French Junior Minister for Public Accounts Gabriel Attal delivers a speech during the debate regarding the draft law on pension system reform at the National Assembly in Paris, on February 6, 2023. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

Forecasts from the independent Pensions Advisory Council show the pensions system in deficit on average over the next 25 years.

The changes would lead to annual savings of around €18 billion by 2030 — mostly from pushing people to work for longer and abolishing some special retirement schemes.

France’s spending on pensions is the third highest among industrialised countries relative to the size of its economy. The country is number one in terms of overall public spending, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In parliament, the government will need to rely on the right-wing Republicans opposition party to pass the draft legislation, without having to resort to controversial executive powers that dispense with the need for a vote.

Macron’s allies are in a minority in the hung National Assembly after elections in June.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Sunday offered a key concession, saying people who started work aged 20 or 21 would be allowed to leave work a year earlier.

Republicans’ head Eric Ciotti has promised his backing, in theory giving the government the numbers it needs to pass the legislation.

But the left-wing opposition group and the far-right nationalist and Eurosceptic party of Marine Le Pen are staunchly opposed and have filed thousands of amendments.

Speaking in parliament on Monday, Le Pen said the government’s reform was “unfair” and “dictated by your desire to please the European Commission.”