Giscard grasped the 70s mood, but French women won their own rights

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The French presidency of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who died on Wednesday aged 94, was marked by a series of breakthroughs on women’s rights, most famously with the legalisation of abortion in 1975. But was the self-styled “moderniser” a driving force behind the reforms or was he merely in tune with the changing times?

Among the many tributes and reflections prompted by Giscard’s death late on Tuesday, a number of social media posts, generally written by men, earned swift rebukes for suggesting the late president had “granted” women key rights. Some said women should be “grateful” to VGE, as Giscard was commonly known. Bernard-Henri Lévy, a public intellectual, referred to him as “the man to whom French women owe so much”.

Progress on women’s rights is, indeed, a major legacy of Giscard’s single-term presidency, arguably surpassing his much-touted contribution to European integration. Landmark achievements of his seven-year tenure, between 1974 and 1981, include the legalisation of abortion, the reinstatement of divorce by mutual consent, and free contraception. A centrist, Giscard was also the first president to hand women full ministerial portfolios. In a pioneering move soon copied around the world, he appointed the very first secretary of state – the equivalent of a junior minister – for “the condition of women”.

However, the man who sought to project the charm and fluency of a French JFK remained noticeably tight-lipped on these subjects throughout his term in office. He defended abortion on public health grounds only, expressing satisfaction that the law passed during his tenure left little scope for “abortions of convenience”. When asked, on the eve of his failed re-election bid in 1981, whether he was a feminist, he ducked and replied, “People say so”.

According to Françoise Picq, a political scientist and veteran feminist campaigner, Giscard understood that societal issues offered the “best chance to burnish his credentials as a modernising force”.

“Suggesting that Giscard granted women key rights is like saying that [President Charles] De Gaulle gave women the vote, it’s simply not true,” Picq says. “But neither did Giscard resist these transformations. Instead, he accompanied the movement, considering it a symbol of the modernity he wished to embody.”

At 48, VGE was France's youngest president since Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte when he was elected in 1974. A year earlier, a landmark Supreme Court ruling had legalised 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 it was almost impossible for him not to act.”

But resistance to abortion rights was also strong, she recalls, crediting Giscard with the courage to challenge opposition from his own ruling majority as well as the “scandalous reticence” of the National Order of Doctors, which initially opposed legalisation. Giscard did not lead the battle himself. His main contribution was to pick Holocaust survivor Simone Veil, his moderate but tenacious health minister, to carry the principal feminist struggle of her time.

‘Calculated choices’

The year 1975, the first full year of Giscard’s presidency, marks a high point of the feminist struggle in France. It lies in the middle of what philosopher and historian Geneviève Fraisse describes as a “transformative decade for women’s rights”, a period which opened with the end of paternal authority (and its replacement by parental authority) in 1970 and closed ten years later with the formal criminalisation of rape.

Veil’s law legalising the voluntary termination of pregnancies came into force at the start of the year, after months of bitter wrangling that saw the minister endure a torrent of abuse from members of her own centre-right coalition in a parliament composed almost entirely of men. The secret to her success was to frame the debate as a matter of public health by stressing the horrific casualty rate caused by clandestine abortions.

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“The choice of Veil, the health minister, to carry this law may surprise people today,” says Fraisse. “After all, Giscard could have picked Françoise Giroud, his pioneering secretary of state for women’s rights. But he was not trying to please women protesting in the streets. Giscard made a calculated choice intended to ensure success in parliament.”

The result was a compromise text designed to appease enough conservative lawmakers to ensure the law could pass with the overwhelming support of the left-wing opposition. Caveats included a series of restrictive conditions and a promise to review the entire law in 1979. By the time the review came up, towards the end of Giscard’s mandate, opposition to the law had petered out and even the Order of Doctors hailed it as a public health success.

Six months after the Veil Law was enacted, legislation restoring divorce by mutual consent signalled another major victory, giving women and men equal rights on the matter. It came almost two centuries after the right to divorce was first instituted during the French Revolution, only to be gradually dismantled under Napoleon and successive regimes that stripped women of key rights.

“The divorce law marked a huge step forward for democracy,” says Fraisse. “With abortion, it was a case of ‘my body, my choice’. This time, it was ‘my life, my choice’. It also signalled a shift away from perceptions of the marital institution as the cornerstone of society.”

Other notable achievements include free contraception for women, introduced at the end of Giscard’s first year in office. The next year, women secured equal say in the choice of matrimonial homes, which had been the sole prerogative of their husbands since Napoleon. Also in 1975, a new law made it possible for the names of both spouses to appear on tax returns, thereby giving official recognition to women’s contribution to the family income.

Reflecting on these breakthroughs in an interview with French daily Libération, historian Mathilde Larrère said they should not be framed solely as Giscard’s record. The late president “named women who led these actions,” Larrère explained. “These reforms must be understood in the context of mass feminist campaigns in France and abroad. [...] One should not merely give credit to men, particularly presidents, for actions that are carried out by women.”