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France moves to make abortion a constitutional right amid rollbacks in US and Europe

France moves to make abortion a constitutional right amid rollbacks in US and Europe

by host

PARIS — France is set to become the first country to enshrine the freedom to have an abortion in its constitution — an effort by President Emmanuel Macron to send a strong message of support for reproductive rights and, at the same time, score political points at the expense of a resurgent far right.

The amendment will be added to the French constitution if three-fifths of parliamentarians from the upper and lower houses approve the bill during an extraordinary voting session being held on Monday in Versailles.

The measure sailed through both chambers of the French parliament and is expected to pass.

Abortion rights are widely supported in France, and limiting them was not a publicly debated issue. While the French left has for years wanted to add a constitutional safeguard to an abortion, until 2022 most lawmakers believed such a move was unnecessary given the existing guarantees for women seeking an abortion.

Macron’s government was spurred to action by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, giving individual states the green light to outlaw the procedure.

“It’s impossible to tell if abortion rights won’t come into question in the future in France,” Mathilde Panot, head of the left-wing France Unbowed group in the National Assembly, told POLITICO. “It’s important to capitalize when we have public on our side.”

She said that Macron only acted thanks to “the work of feminist organizations and parliamentarians.”

“He can boast, but it’s first and foremost our victory,” Panot said.

Splitting the right

While abortion is legal in most of the European Union, right-wing populists across the bloc have implemented policies designed to restrict or make more complicated access to the procedure. In Hungary, pregnant people are made to listen to the pulse of the fetus, sometimes described as a “fetal heartbeat,” a term medical professionals reject, from the very first ultrasound. Poland outlawed abortion in most cases while the right-wing Law and Justice party was in power, though new Prime Minister Donald Tusk is working on overturning the ban.

Officially, the far-right National Rally supports the right to end a pregnancy, but abortion remains a divisive topic in its ranks. Of its 88 MPs, 46, including three-time presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, voted in favor of the constitutional revision. Twelve voted against; 14 abstained.

The National Rally is currently surging in the polls ahead of the June European election. A recent poll showed the pro-Macron list for the European election 12 percentage points behind the French far-right standard bearer and only seven ahead of the Socialist-backed list led by Raphaël Glucksmann.

Macron’s rightwards pivot on issues including immigration has led to concerns within his own camp of seeing the left-end of the president’s voter base turning towards other options on the center-left.

Macron’s government was spurred to action by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, giving individual states the green light to outlaw the procedure | Kiran Ridley/AFP via Getty Images

By backing a hugely popular proposal a few months ahead of an election, Macron gave conservative and far-right leaders a headache while courting support from the left.

Enshrining abortion rights into the constitution was a way of “uniting against conservatives and reactionaries,” Christopher Weissberg, an MP in the pro-Macron ranks told POLITICO. “It helped build consensus and show ourselves under a progressive light.”

Weissberg, who represents French citizens living in Canada and the U.S. said he had seen concern among his stateside constituents after the Roe v. Wade reversal, with some even reconsidering their future in the country.

Increasing polarization

An IFOP poll from 2022 showed 81 percent of respondents in favor of adding the right to have an abortion to the constitution, with majority support across party lines. Only 10 percent said they had a negative opinion on abortion being legal.

“When abortion was legalized [in 1975], the French population was split on the matter,” Pierre-Hadrien Bartoli, an analyst for the OpinionWay polling institute, said, pointing to the much higher prevalence of religious practice then compared to the now widely secularized French society. “The opinion that it [abortion] should be banned in all cases has almost disappeared.” 

The increasing polarization of France’s politics occasionally led the issue to reappear in the public debate. CNews, a news channel owned by the devout Catholic billionaire Vincent Bolloré and often compared to America’s Fox News, recently showed a graphic presenting abortion as the first cause of mortality worldwide. The channel later apologized for doing so.

The French conservative movement, Les Républicains, also had doubts. François-Xavier Bellamy, its lead candidate for the EU election, said in a 2019 interview he was “personally” against abortion and had taken part in anti-abortion protests in the past. Gérard Larcher, also a member of Les Républicains and the president of the conservative-controlled Senate, said he was against granting abortion a constitutional status, arguing that “abortion is not under threat in France.”

Many opponents of the constitutional revision echoed his sentiments, stressing that their opposition was on legal or procedural grounds and that they did not seek to outlaw abortions.

“Macron forced Les Républicains to adopt a stance on an issue on which a wide array of opinions exist within the party,” Bartoli said. For the far-right National Rally, the challenge is “keeping the image of a firm opponent” without alienating its base which, in majority, “will cheer on the proposed change,” he added.

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