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‘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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POLITICS

Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers – French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

From coffee runs to rugby tickets and professional photos - France's election financing body has revealed some of the items it has refused to reimburse from the 2022 presidential race.

Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers - French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

Spending on the election trail is tightly regulated in France, with maximum campaign spends per candidate as well as a list of acceptable expenses that can be reimbursed.

In France the State pays at least some of the election campaign costs, with the budget calculated according to how many votes the candidate ends up getting. 

READ MORE: 5 things to know about French election campaign financing

On Friday, the government body (la Commission nationale des comptes de campagne et des financements politiques – or CNCCFP) released its findings for the 12 candidates who ran in the April 2022 presidential campaign. 

All of the candidates had their accounts approved, but 11 out of the 12 were refused reimbursement on certain items. Here are some of the items that did not get CNCCFP approval;

Rugby tickets 

Jean Lassalle – the wildcard ‘pro farmer’ candidate who received about three percent of votes cast in the first round of the 2022 election – bought “19 tickets to attend a rugby match” according to the CNCCFP’s findings. The organisation said it would not be reimbursing the tickets and questioned “the electoral nature of the event”. 

The total cost of the tickets was €465 (or €24.50 each).

Too many coffees

Socialist candidate, and current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo reportedly spent at least €1,600 on coffee for her team during the campaign.

According to the CNCCFP, however, the caffeine needed to keep a presidential campaign running did not qualify under the country’s strict campaign financing rules.

Too many stickers

Hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s was told that the 1.2 million stickers that were bought – to the tune of €28,875 – to advertise the campaign would not be reimbursed. Mélenchon justified the purchasing of the stickers – saying that in the vast majority of cases they were used to build up visibility for campaign events, but CNCCFP ruled that “such a large number” was not justified. 

Mélenchon was not the only one to get in trouble for his signage. Extreme-right candidate Éric Zemmour was accused of having put up over 10,000 posters outside official places reserved for signage. The same went for the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, who decided to appeal the CNCCFP’s decision not to reimburse €300,000 spent on putting posters of her face with the phrase “M la France” on 12 campaign buses.

Poster pictures

Emmanuel Macron – who won re-election in 2022 – will not be reimbursed for the €30,000 spent on a professional photographer Soazig de la Moissonière, who works as his official photographer and took the picture for his campaign poster. 

The CNCCFP said that Macron’s team had “not sufficiently justified” the expenditure.

Expensive Airbnbs

Green party member Yannick Jadot reportedly spent €6,048 on Airbnbs in the city of Paris for some of his campaign employees – an expense that the CNCCFP said that public funds would not cover.

Translating posters

The campaign finance body also refused to reimburse the Mélenchon campaign’s decision to translate its programme into several foreign languages at a cost of €5,398.

The CNCCFP said that they did not consider the translations to be “an expense specifically intended to obtain votes” in a French election.

Best and worst in class

The extreme-right pundit Zemmour had the largest amount of money not reimbursed. Zemmour created a campaign video that used film clips and historic news footage without permission and also appeared on CNews without declaring his candidacy – because of these two offences, CNCCFP has reduced his reimbursement by €200,000. He has been hit with a separate bill of €70,000 after he was found guilty of copyright infringement over the campaign video. 

The star pupil was Nathalie Arthaud, high-school teacher and candidate for the far-left Lutte Ouvriere party, who apparently had “completely clean accounts”. A CNCCFP spokesperson told Le Parisien that if all candidate accounts were like Arthauds’, then “we would be unemployed”.

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