The French presidency of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who died on Wednesday at the age of 94, was marked by a series of breakthroughs for women’s rights, best known for the legalization of abortion in 1975. But the self-formed “modernizer” was a driving force. behind the reforms or was he just in line with the changing times?
Among the many tributes and reflections sparked by Giscard’s death late Tuesday, a number of social media outlets, usually written by men, were quickly reprimanded for suggesting that the late president had “granted” women key rights. Some said that women should be “grateful” for VGE, as Giscard was widely known. Bernard-Henri Lévy, a public intellectual, referred to him as “the man whom French women owe so much.”
Progress in women’s rights is indeed a great legacy of Giscard’s presidency for a time and has undoubtedly surpassed his much-appreciated contribution to European integration. Landmarks achieved during his seven-year tenure, between 1974 and 1981, include the legalization of abortion, the reintroduction of divorce with mutual consent, and free contraception. A centrist, Giscard was also the first president to hand over women’s complete ministerial portfolios. In a groundbreaking feature that was soon copied around the world, he appointed the very first Secretary of State – equivalent to a junior minister – to “the condition of women”.
But the man who tried to project the charm and flow of a French JFK remained noticeably tight on these topics throughout his tenure. He only defended abortion for public health reasons and expressed satisfaction that the law adopted during his term of office provided little room for “abortion for convenience”. When asked before his failed re-election in 1981 if he was a feminist, he ducked and replied: “People say that”.
According to Françoise Picq, a political scientist and veteran feminist campaigner, Giscard understood that societal issues provided “the best chance of disappearing their tasks as a modernizing force.”
“To suggest that Giscard granted women key rights is like saying that [President Charles] De Gaulle gave women the right to vote, that is simply not true, says Picq. “But neither did Giscard resist these transformations. Instead, he followed the movement and considered it a symbol of the modernity he wanted to embody. ”
At the age of 48, VGE was France’s youngest president since Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte when he was elected in 1974. A year earlier, a Supreme Court landmark had legalized abortion in the United States and a French campaign demanding similar rights was in full swing. As Picq puts it, “when Giscard came to power, our movement was so powerful that it was almost impossible for him not to act.”
But opposition to abortion rights was also strong, she recalls, attributing to Giscard the courage to challenge opposition from his own ruling majority as well as the “scandalous reticence” of the National Order of Doctors, which originally opposed legalization. Giscard did not lead the battle himself. His main contribution was to elect Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, his moderate but persistent health minister, to carry out the feminist struggle of her time.
1975, the first full year of Giscard’s presidency, marks a culmination of the feminist struggle in France. It is in the midst of what historian and philosopher Geneviève Fraisse describes as a “transformative decade for women’s rights,” a period that began with the end of the father’s authority (and was replaced by parental authority) in 1970 and ended ten years later with the formal criminalization of rape.
Veil’s law legalizing voluntary termination of pregnancies came into force at the beginning of the year, after months of bitter strife that saw the minister endure a major abuse by members of her center-right coalition in a parliament that consisted almost entirely of men. The secret of her success was to frame the debate as a matter of public health by emphasizing the terrible speed of accidents caused by secret abortions.
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“The choice of Veil, the Minister of Health, to enforce this law may surprise people today,” Fraisse said. “After all, Giscard could have chosen Françoise Giroud, his pioneering secretary of state for women’s rights. But he did not try to please women who protested in the streets. Giscard made an estimated choice to ensure the success of Parliament. ”
Simone Veil addresses the French National Assembly on November 26, 1974, defending her bill to legalize abortion in France. © AFP file photo
The result was a compromise text that aimed to appease enough conservative legislators to ensure that the law could pass with the overwhelming support of the left-wing opposition. Reservations included a series of restrictive conditions and a promise to review the entire law in 1979. When the review came, towards the end of Giscard’s term, opposition to the law had disappeared and even the doctors’ order hailed it as a success for public health.
Six months after the legislation was passed, signaled legislation restoring divorce with mutual consent is another major victory for women. It came almost two centuries after the right was first introduced during the French Revolution, to be gradually dismantled under Napoleon and successive regimes that deprived women of key rights.
“The Divorce Act marked a major step forward for women and for democracy,” Fraisse said. “Abortion was about ‘my body, my choice’. This time it was “my life, my choice”. It also signaled a shift from the perception of the marriage institution as the cornerstone of society. ”