‘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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Pope arrives in Marseille for trip shadowed by migrant crisis

Pope Francis arrived in Marseille on Friday for a two-day visit focused on the Mediterranean and migration, bringing to France a message of tolerance amid bitter debate over how Europe manages asylum seekers.

Pope arrives in Marseille for trip shadowed by migrant crisis

Marseille was decked out in the yellow and white colours of the Vatican for the first visit by a pope to France’s second-largest city in 500 years, where 100,000 people are expected to turn out to see the pontiff in his “popemobile” on Saturday.

The 86-year-old is visiting to take part in a meeting of Mediterranean-area Catholic bishops and young people — but his trip comes at a politically sensitive time.

The pontiff disembarked at Marseille airport from his plane away from the view of cameras. He was then wheeled in a wheelchair towards Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who was waiting on the airport tarmac to greet him, an AFP correspondent said.

He then stood up from his wheelchair to acknowledge the welcome of a military band.

A surge in migrant boats arriving from North Africa on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week trigged outrage in Italy and a heated debate across Europe over how to share responsibility for the numbers.

Marseille is a historic gateway for immigrants and also home to some of the poorest neighbourhoods in Europe, many of which are plagued by drug trafficking.

The desperate conditions that cause many people to leave their homes for a new life, and the risks they take to do so, have been a key theme during Francis’s decade as head of the Catholic Church.

Speaking at the Vatican on Sunday, he noted that migration “represents a challenge that is not easy… but which must be faced together”.

He emphasised the need for “fraternity, putting human dignity and real people, especially those most in need, in first place”.

Ahead of what will be his 44th overseas trip, Francis acknowledged this month that papal voyages were not as easy as they used to be.

He underwent hernia surgery in June, less than two years after having colon surgery, and routinely uses a wheelchair because of a troublesome knee.

Meeting pilgrims

Despite the decline in France of Catholicism, the once dominant faith, the pope’s visit has sparked huge enthusiasm, with almost 60,000 people expected at a mass on Saturday afternoon.

“Habemus papam” headlined regional newspaper La Provence, using the famous Latin phrase meaning “We have a pope!” used  on the election of a pontiff.

For Joseph Achji, a 25-year-old Syrian Christian originally from Aleppo, the pope’s visit is a “chance of a lifetime”.

He will head to the Basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, a symbolic monument overlooking the city, for a prayer with local clergy on Friday afternoon.

That will be followed by a moment of meditation with representatives of other religions at a memorial to sailors and migrants lost at sea.

The United Nations estimates that more than 28,000 migrants who have tried to cross the Mediterranean since 2014 have gone missing.

After 8,500 migrants landed on Lampedusa in three days earlier this month, the European Union promised more help for Rome.

But France, amid wrangling over a draft law governing migrant arrivals there, said it would not accept anyone from the island.

“We are expecting very strong words” from the pope, said Francois Thomas, head of Marseille-based SOS Mediterranee, which operates a migrant rescue boat in the sea.

“It is our humanity that is sinking if Europe does not do something.”

Mass with Macron

On Saturday morning, Francis will take part in the closing session of the “Mediterranean Meetings” event.

As well as migration, it will cover issues such as economic inequality and climate change — also themes close to the pope’s heart.

On Saturday afternoon, Francis will lead a mass at the Velodrome stadium, with French President Emmanuel Macron among those due to attend.

Macron’s attendance has sparked controversy among left-wing politicians in the officially secular country.

Some right-wing politicians have criticised the pope’s stance on migrants — but Marseille mayor Benoit Payan said the pontiff “has a universal message… of peace”.

Francky Domingo, who runs a migrant association in Marseille, said he hoped the visit would “give back a little hope” and “ease tensions at the political level”.

“Marseille is a cosmopolitan city, multicultural, multi-faith,” he told AFP, but faces “enormous difficulties”.