France to launch national debate on the right to die

France's conservative laws on the right to die could be relaxed and brought more into line with neighbours such as Belgium as the country launches a 'citizen's council' on the subject on Friday.

France to launch national debate on the right to die
Frenchman Alain Cocq in 2021. Cocq suffers from an incurable orphan disease, wrote to President Macron asking for the right to die in 2020. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)

Starting on Friday, France will launch a citizen’s council on the topic of ‘the right-to-die.’

The council, which was first announced by President Emmanuel Macron in September after a meeting with actress and prominent right-to-die campaigner Line Renaud, would look into and debate key questions surrounding the possibility of changing legislation in France.

It will be made up of 150 citizens – chosen randomly – and it will run until March.

Earlier this fall, France’s national Ethics Committee for Health and Life Sciences – which considers complex ethical questions – delivered a favourable opinion on the right to die. Recent polling by the news site 20-minutes also showed that among young people (those aged 18-30), 83 percent reported being favourable to legalised assisted suicide.

France lags behind some of its European neighbours on the ‘right to die,’ and the topic has been the subject of much controversy, namely in 2019, when a top French court ordered that a paralysed patient in a vegetative state for over a decade should be allowed to die.

In 2020, a terminally ill man, Alain Cocq, wrote to French President Emmanuel Macron, asking for the right to take a drug that would allow him to die peacefully. In response, Macron told Cocq that such a request is “not currently permitted in our country.” 

The issue gained momentum again when the National Ethics Committee for Health and Life Sciences delivered its opinion on the right to die in September.

The members judged that it is possible to create an “active assistance for death” if it is strictly supervised. 

The CCNE exists as a French consultative body, intended to “give opinions on ethical problems and social issues” that are related to advancements in fields of biology, medicine and health. They have considered several topics, such as experimentation on humans, embryo research and consent in relation to genetic information.

After over a year of considering the legalisation of euthanasia in France, the body delivered its final judgment that “there exists a pathway to an ethical application of active assistance in dying.”

The opinion came shortly after French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to launch a citizen’s council on the right to die, ahead of proposing new legislation in 2023. 

What does French law says about the issue?

As of December 2022, French law prohibited active euthanasia and assisted suicide, as per the 2016 Claeys-Leonetti law. 

These terms carry different meanings and should not be confused – euthanasia is defined as a doctor being allowed by law to end a person’s life by a painless means, as long as the person and their family agree. Assisted suicide, in contrast, is defined as a  doctor assisting an individual in taking their own life if the person requests it.

There is also passive and active euthanasia, though often when legalisation of euthanasia is discussed, it is the latter being considered. Many countries across the world allow for ‘passive’ euthanasia, which is when “medical professionals either don’t do something necessary to keep the patient alive, or when they stop doing something that is keeping the patient alive.” 

Conversely, ‘active euthanasia’ is when a doctor or other party does something that causes the patient to die. 

In France, patients are legally allowed to refuse or cease treatment. If they cannot express their own wishes, then the decision can be taken by a team of several doctors.

Terminally ill patients also have the right to “deep and continuous sedation.” This entails stopping current treatment, sedating the patient, and providing them with painkillers and palliative care.

Patients also have the right to leave “advance directives” – or instructions for the event where they are no longer able to express themselves. The form is signed and dated, and should be binding on doctors. It allows the patient to dictate end of life care in regard to continuing, limiting, or refusing medical treatment. France’s Conseil d’Etat reaffirmed this part of the law in 2018, which the CCNE agreed with. However, both emphasised the need to increase access to palliative care. 

President Emmanuel Macron has stated that he is in “favour of moving towards the Belgian model” but his “personal opinion on the topic does not matter,” newspaper SudOuest reported.

Belgium, legalised active euthanasia in 2002, while several of France’s other neighbours including the Netherlands and Switzerland allow assisted suicide.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What are France’s ‘citizen councils’?

The citizen’s council will have six months to consider the current legal model. After which, the subject will either be put forward to Parliament, using the text drafted by the council as a starting place, or it could be put to a referendum. However, the French president does not plan to change the law prior to the end of 2023.

Key French terms you should know on the ‘right to die’

  • Une aide active à mourir – Active assistance in dying
  • Droit a mourir – Right to die
  • Sédation profonde – Deep and continuous sedation
  • Suicide assisté – Assisted suicide
  • Soins palliatifs – Palliative care

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Calls to limit right to strike in Paris during the Olympics

Paris regional officials have reportedly asked the French Senate to limit the right to strike during the 2024 Olympics in an effort to ensure smooth operations for public transport.

Calls to limit right to strike in Paris during the Olympics

As unions organise ahead of a day of mobilisation and walkouts on January 31st to protest proposed pension reform, head of the greater Paris region (and right-wing former presidential candidate) Valérie Pécresse ha reportedly requested that the French government restricts the right to strike during the 2024 Games.

A member of Pécresse’s team told Le Parisien that the objective was to place limits on the right to strike in an attempt to stop certain unions from abusing the right and “completely disrupting [public transport] services”. 

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

However, the proposals were rejected by the French Senate and were denounced by unions as “another attack on the right to strike”.

Although strikes are common in France there are some limits – workers in essential industries like public transport must give 48 hours’ notice of their intention to strike and workers in certain sectors including the army and emergency services are banned from striking.

The French government also has a rarely-used strike-busting power which allows it to force strikers back to work if their actions are affecting the security of the county.

Pécresse’s request came just a few days before the French government was set to debate an “Olympics bill” – which will establish some exemptions to current regulations in the effort of ensuring “smooth running” of the Olympic Games in 2024.

Concerns have arisen regarding the possibility of industrial action during the Olympic Games, which will come after the controversial opening up of competition the Paris public transport system (the RATP). During a speech in mid-January, Pécresse told IDFM that she hoped to create “100 percent guaranteed service during peak hours” on public transport, even during strike action.

Members of French President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet have also expressed apprehension about possible strike action during the Olympics.

The attempt to add amendments that would restrict striking came just a day after French Minister of Transport, Clément Beaune, told Télématin that there were no plans to “touch the right to strike”, but that Macron had tasked the ministry with look into setting up more significant warning periods, as well as safeguarded periods for “vacation departures”. The minister also discussed the idea of having reserves of workers who could be mobilised to help during strike periods.

It was a member of Pécresse’s centre-right party – Philippe Tabarot – sought to add amendments restricting the right to strike to the bill, but they were ultimately rejected by the Senate. He referred to strike action at French national rail services (SNCF) during the Christmas holidays – which left 200,000 people without transport – as “intolerable” and said that “the right to strike is now being abused”.

READ MORE: ‘You don’t strike at Christmas’ – fury in France as trains cancelled

According to Le Parisien, Tabraot specifically sought require unions to provide strike notice at least 72-hours ahead of industrial action – instead of the current 48-hours. Additionally, the proposed amendments would make it so unions could not reactive an old “unlimited” strike notice that was filed several years ago and has since gone unused. The latter would attempt to diminish workers’ ability to spontaneously walk out.

And finally Tabarot hoped to add an amendment that would limit ‘short strikes’ by requiring workers to join strike action “at the start of their first shift” that day. This would make it so workers could not walk out in the middle of services for ‘short’ (under 59 minute) strikes.

Even though Tabarot’s amendments were not accepted during this attempt, the elected official said that the Senate would have to return to the subject in the following weeks and months, as the French parliament continues to consider the Olympics bill.