Rendering homage to Gisèle Halimi, a feminist lawyer instrumental in the legalization of abortion in France, President Emmanuel Macron announced on Wednesday that a bill would be prepared “in the coming months” to enshrine in the Constitution the freedom to choose a “voluntary termination of a pregnancy.”
A national law made abortion legal in France in 1975, and no serious threat to its legality exists today, but the decision of the United States Supreme Court last year to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion has galvanized French efforts to protect and recognize abortion as an inalienable right.
“Courts in other countries in the world have returned to the question of women’s rights because reactionary ideologues are seeking their revenge on the lawyers and activists who once made them retreat,” Mr. Macron said. It was clear which country he was alluding to.
Debate on safeguarding abortion rights through an amendment of the Constitution began last year in the National Assembly, the lower house of the French Parliament, and continued this year in the Senate. Both have backed the idea, but with different wording.
Mr. Macron’s mention of a drafting of a constitutional law bill within “months” injected a new urgency into the process and gave it his personal imprimatur.
Ms. Halimi, who died in 2020 at age 93, was a Tunisian-born French attorney and socialist lawmaker widely recognized for her unstinting struggle for the legalization of abortion in France, which occurred two years after the Roe v. Wade ruling in the United States.
“Injustice is physically intolerable to me,” Ms. Halimi, who was born into a conservative Jewish family in Tunis, said in 1988. “My entire life can be summed up by that. Everything started with the hated Arab, then the Jew, then the colonized, and then women.”
Mr. Macron, speaking at the historic Palais de Justice courthouse in central Paris, said he hoped the “force” of Ms. Halimi’s “message” would “help us change our Constitution in order to engrave in it the freedom of women to voluntarily interrupt a pregnancy, so that nothing can obstruct or undo what would then be irreversible.”
In practice, Constitutional revision is a long process requiring either a referendum or agreement by the National Assembly and Senate on an identical text that would have to be voted on by the two houses meeting together at Versailles.
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The National Assembly and the more conservative Senate have already differed on whether the word “right,” favored by the lower house, or “freedom,” favored by the Senate and by Mr. Macron in his speech, should be used in the text to define women’s irreversible constitutional access to abortion.
Ms. Halimi was known for her battles on many fronts. She defended members of the Algerian National Liberation Front fighting for independence from France in the eight-year war that ended in 1960, in particular an Algerian woman who was accused of setting a bomb and subsequently tortured and raped by French soldiers.
A French court sentenced the woman, Djamila Boupacha, to death at age 23. But after Ms. Halimi’s impassioned defense of her, she was pardoned and freed in 1962, the year Algeria gained independence.
Ms. Halimi’s defense of another young woman, Marie-Claire Chevalier, a 16-year-old high school student accused of having an illegal abortion after being raped by a fellow student, led to her acquittal in 1972. The case was a turning point on the road to the legalization of abortion.
Mr. Macron marked International Women’s Day by honoring Ms. Halimi, something he had promised to do since her death in 2020, only to postpone any homage several times.
The delay, and a decision not to induct her into the Panthéon, the nation’s tomb of heroes, despite several petitions and appeals, has provoked suggestions that Mr. Macron did not want to anger the extreme right, who still revile Ms. Halimi for her role in Algeria. The war remains a matter of extreme sensitivity in France.
In a sign of the febrile atmosphere in a France shaken by enormous demonstrations and strikes over Mr. Macron’s proposal to raise the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62, the president faced sharp rebukes from within Ms. Halimi’s family and among her supporters for choosing the wrong political moment to honor a woman known for her progressive views on social issues.
Serge Halimi, one of her three sons and a former editorial director of Le Monde Diplomatique, a monthly publication on politics, culture and international affairs, refused to attend the ceremony.
He issued a statement saying that “at a moment when the women who have the toughest jobs will be the first victims” of Mr. Macron’s proposed pension reform, he could not take part. “My mother would have defended their cause and demonstrated at their side,” he said.
An association called Choosing the Cause of Women that Ms. Halimi, Simone de Beauvoir and others founded in 1971 also declined to send anyone. Its president, Violaine Lucas, sent a letter to Mr. Macron criticizing his last-minute organization of the homage as a “political manipulation that will fool nobody.”
She accused him of finding every excuse over almost three years to evade honoring this “lawyer of radical combats.”
This was not the view of another of Ms. Halimi’s sons, Jean-Yves Halimi, a lawyer who spoke before Mr. Macron and thanked him for expressing “the homage of the nation that through universal suffrage he incarnates today.”
Still, a moment intended as one of solemn unity, in honor of a woman whom many in France revere, could not escape the sharp political and social confrontation dividing France today.
Daphné Anglès and Tom Nouvian contributed reporting.