In this decisive period between the two rounds of the French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron’s declarations are being scrutinised to find out in which direction he intends to inflect his next five-year term, if he is reelected.
Societal progressivism is emerging as one of the salient features of his new mandate, with the introduction of euthanasia in France in his sights.
Already before the first round, the President of the Republic had made a very explicit statement which had nevertheless made little noise in the French press. During a trip to Charente-Maritime, Emmanuel Macron spoke out in favour of euthanasia, explaining that he was “in favour of moving towards the Belgian model”—in other words, towards the decriminalisation of euthanasia.
Referring to his past term, he hastened to add: “I had no democratic mandate to do this and there was no consensus in society,” providing a reason for not acting earlier to change French laws in this regard. The debates orchestrated by the government around the revision of the bioethics laws at the beginning of Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term did not favour introducing euthanasia.
The current French regime’s stand on the end-of-life issue is the so-called “Léonetti” Law, voted on in April 2005, under Jacques Chirac. This law prohibits the use of prolonged therapy, i.e., any treatment intended to prolong the life of a person at the end of life in an “unreasonable” manner. Doctors are allowed to limit, or stop treatment, to allow the patient to die relieved and accompanied, but they are prohibited from participating in the patient’s death. In addition, it provides the caveat that palliative care must be given to relieve suffering patients.
Known as a compromise law, the Léonetti Law is considered by all the political class as a balanced text, which prevents drift on the sensitive issue of end-of-life care. But recently Vincent Lambert’s case showed the limit of the law. It appeared insufficient in helping to find a satisfying end to the fierce debates generated by his complex situation.
Indeed, Vincent Lambert was the victim of a serious road accident in 2008, plunging him into a pauci-relational vegetative state. A long battle ensued between his parents—who wanted to continue his care—and his wife, who wanted to disconnect his artificial feeding and hydration. In 2018, in an article published in Le Figaro, 70 doctors and health professionals, specialising in the care of brain-damaged people in a chronic vegetative or pauci-relative state, stated that in their opinion Vincent Lambert was not at the end of his life and should be transferred to a specialised unit. Several court rulings led to the cessation, then the resumption of care, until a final decision by the Reims hospital centre in 2019 resulted in Vincent Lambert’s death due to the cessation of nutrition and hydration. This case had greatly moved French opinion, and re-launched the debate on euthanasia. A bill allowing euthanasia had been proposed at the initiative of centrist MP Olivier Falorni in 2021, but had been rejected.
Now that the first round has passed, Emmanuel Macron is making things clear. On Monday, April 11th, the President of the National Assembly Richard Ferrand announced that the “right to die with dignity” would be the major societal reform of the new five-year term if Emmanuel Macron were elected. Richard Ferrand specified the modalities of the reform: “Emmanuel Macron said that he wanted a citizens’ convention to be organised around this subject so that we can find the organisation in France that would be suitable as a response to this subject,” he detailed.
This convoluted formula is crystal-clear for French life-defenders. It reminds them of the so-called debate that was supposed to examine the possibility for introducting medically assisted reproduction for homosexuals in 2018. In that case too, a citizen’s convention was to be called, but no proper debate took place. In fact, the public discussion had been controlled and biased.
Marine Le Pen, in contrast, is firmly opposed to any legalisation of euthanasia, as she indicated in a video broadcast by the Association for the Right to Die with Dignity—the French pro-euthanasia lobby—in early April 2022. “On the other hand, I will make a big plan to develop palliative care in our country because we are lagging far behind in this area and I think that many French people are in favour of euthanasia because they have seen loved ones suffer horribly.”
In February 2022, Catholic lawyer and essayist Erwan Le Morhedec published a book Fin de vie en République—Avant d’éteindre la lumière, intended to alert public opinion to the dangers of Macron’s legislative projects.
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).