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Abortion in the French Constitution: A Political Trap? by Hélène de Lauzun

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Abortion in the French Constitution: A Political Trap?

Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

The announcement of the repeal of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court has triggered strong emotion in France, where the debate on abortion has been de facto impossible for many years. 

The Veil law, supported by the charismatic figure of Simone Veil, a Nazi camp surviver, which decriminalised abortion in 1974, is considered untouchable and has since been reinforced by numerous additional legislative provisions. The legal duration of abortion has been progressively extended over the years, conscience clauses and other reflection periods reduced, while the practice of medical abortion has been promoted by expanding its application. In addition, a law was passed in 2017 instituting the “offence of obstruction,” which effectively prohibits any communication that would aim to dissuade a woman from having an abortion, for example, informing a woman about the possible risks and health consequences of this medical act. 

As a result, any pro-life stance or critical comment against abortion by a politician is sufficient to subject that person to widespread public opprobrium.

The American decision thus gave rise to an outpouring of indignant reactions in the political and journalistic class, deploring the Court’s decision as a terrible regression for women’s rights. With much trepidation, French media recoiled at the prospect of delegating to the states alone the power to decide on abortion, at the expense of the federal state. In the hours following the news, the Macronist deputy Aurore Bergé announced her intention to table a bill to enshrine the right to abortion in the French Constitution. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne shortly afterwards surmised: “The government will strongly support this bill,” she tweeted. The left-wing coalition NUPES announced that it would table its own project, not without recalling that deputies from the Left had already presented similar projects in 2018 and 2019, and that the La République En Marche! (LREM) majority had then opposed them.

Today, such political gesturing is an obvious political manoeuvre on the part of the government majority. The claim of a “right to abortion”—which for the moment is not explicitly defined as such in French law, but only incidentally in a law dating from 2001—is a very convenient political marker to distinguish a camp of Good (pro-choice and progressive) from a camp of Evil (pro-life and obscurantist). 

At a time when the Macronist government is struggling to find a majority in the National Assembly, it is thus closing ranks around an easily divisive societal project. In the crosshairs, the Rassemblement National. Aurore Bergé explicitly focused on the 89 deputies: “fierce opponents of women’s access to abortion,” in her words. Indeed, on several occasions, some personalities of the national Right party have made comments challenging the notion of “right to abortion” and its unlimited practice

Even if she doesn’t want to abrogate the Veil law, the candidate Marine Le Pen has always presented abortion as a terrible tragedy. A few months ago, she and her deputies voted against extending the legal deadline from 12 to 14 weeks. A few years ago, she even spoke out against what she called the practice of “comfort abortions,” i.e., the excessive recourse of some women to abortion for reasons deemed minor, making it an alternative to contraception, far from the spirit of the Veil law, which was supposed to make recourse to abortion an exception. Conservative MPs, such as Hervé de Lépinau or Laure Lavalette, make no secret of their pro-life commitment. The issue at stake is how the group of MPs will react to the vote on the bill. Will voting instructions be given, one way or the other? For the moment, the discussion is open, as party spokesman Philippe Ballard said.

Although almost no one in the French political sphere is considering going back on the Veil law, Aurore Bergé’s project is not unanimously supported. Centrist François Bayrou, president of the Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem), one of Emmanuel Macron’s main allies, has expressed his disagreement with the inclusion of the right to abortion in the Constitution. Like the Rassemblement National, he criticised the media frenzy caused in France by an event in the United States: “I’m not in favour of modelling political life on that of the United States,” he explained.

The leader of the Les Républicains senators, Bruno Retailleau ,denounced the obvious and crude Macron political manoeuvre: “To mask its inability to solve the country’s real problems, the majority is inventing fictitious ones,” he denounced. Jean-François Copé, a leading figure in the LR party, echoed the same view: “There is no need to do this,” he said. 

To sum up, while there is now a general consensus among French politicians to maintain the right to abortion, there is no guarantee that it will be enshrined in the Constitution. The process is long and complex. Within the framework of a constitutional revision, there are two distinct stages. First, there must be adoption in identical terms by both houses of parliament. Once the National Assembly and the Senate have voted in favour of a single text, it must be submitted to a referendum, or validated by the two chambers meeting in Congress in Versailles. 

This is a long and arduous path strewn with pitfalls and uncertainties that may, in the end, upend the purpose they were intended to achieve.

Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).