The moment that electrified France – and could push forward abortion rights around the world

Crowds in Paris celebrate the French parliament voting to enshrine the right to abortion into the country’s constitution, 4 March 2024. Photograph: Adnan Farzat/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock
Crowds in Paris celebrate the French parliament voting to enshrine the right to abortion into the country’s constitution, 4 March 2024. Photograph: Adnan Farzat/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

There was little doubt that the French parliament would reach a majority on Monday, when it gathered in a special session to enshrine the right to abortion into its constitution. But even so, it was an electric moment. At the Palace of Versailles, big enough to host the 925 MPs and senators eligible to vote, the scene was set to the solemn drumming of the republican guard.

Broadcast live on every news channel and beamed on to a giant screen at the Paris Trocadéro, opposite the Eiffel Tower, French citizens watched as the national assembly’s first female president, Yaël Braun-Pivet, looking calm and focused, walked towards the packed chamber to declare the hearing open. Passing republican guards in full regalia, sabres drawn, forming a guard of honour, there was total silence as she made her entrance to make history, as France became the world’s first country to guarantee women’s rights to abortion.

What is remarkable in France’s bold move to protect a woman’s right to choose is that there are few places in the world where access to abortion is less under threat. No French political party opposes it or has made moves to restrict access – not even the far right, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, supported the proposal to enshrine it in the constitution. “It will be President Macron’s only victory in his 10 years of power”, she sneered as she arrived in Versailles.

And yet. What happened in the United States, where 24 states and territories have rescinded fully or partly the right to abortion, rang alarm bells for the French political class. With the support of Macron, there was widespread political consensus to make abortion rights in France much more difficult to tamper with. Mathilde Panot, an MP from the hard-left party France Unbowed, who first proposed the move, told the chamber it was “a promise … for all women fighting [for abortion rights] everywhere in the world”.

Braun-Pivet declared: “France is at the avant garde, it is in its place”. It is certainly true that France has a proud feminist past: during the French Revolution, the pioneer Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, in which she demanded equal rights for women, including that the right to divorce be written in the constitution of 1791. She also demanded that children born out of wedlock be given the same rights as legitimate children. No small revolution. In more recent history, however, France proved particularly slow to give women the right to vote. Gen Charles de Gaulle only made it legal in 1944, a quarter of a century after Britain.

France’s rekindling of its glorious feminist tradition is seen by some as an example of Macron’s easy politicking, but it is also viewed by many more as an effort to unite the country around what an overwhelming majority of French people consider to be a just and important cause. A 2022 poll showed that 86% were in favour of enshrining the right to an abortion in the constitution. Many in France now hope that other European countries will follow suit and that it has set an important precedent – that Europe will not go the same way as the US. Could this inspire the liberal Donald Tusk in Poland, where abortion is still banned (except in cases of rape, incest or danger to life)?

What is clear is that the French have an undeniable talent for staging historic moments. Just before 7pm, Braun-Pivet delivered the results: “780 votes in favour, 72 votes against”. While legislators took to their feet to applaud the stunning result, cheers of thousands of Parisians could be heard at the Trocadéro, and the Eiffel Tower started glittering as four words, “mon corps mon choix” (my body my choice), appeared on it in giant letters.

Groups of feminists who first championed the fight for abortion more than 50 years ago cheered and danced in sheer jubilation. This vote was very much their triumph, too. It was a moment of rare unity, the kind that a country like France is craving, amid a much-fragmented political landscape and regular bouts of social unrest.

“French pride, universal message”, tweeted Macron, inviting the public to attend, for the first time in France’s history, the sealing ceremony of the constitutional revision this Friday at midday, in front of the justice ministry on Place Vendôme. The wax seal will aptly feature the face of the beautiful Marianne, the French republic’s symbol. A street party will follow to celebrate “the culmination of a collective fight”.

For women elsewhere in the world, the fight continues.

Agnès Poirier is a political commentator, writer and critic.

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