Nicole Muchnik's challenge that decriminalized abortion in France

A few days ago, during a visit to Nicole Muchnik in her apartment on Madrid's Paseo de la Castellana, my gaze fell on a book that rested on the dining room table. The striking cover, with a red background, showed a drawing of a young woman with her fist raised and the title of the work in large white letters: Le Manifeste des 343. L'histoire d'un combat.

–Are you interested? Take it away –Nicole instinctively said, that she is busy these days dismantling the house that she shared with the editor Mario Muchnik, her partner of more than six decades, recently deceased in Madrid.

I picked up the book and, taking a quick look, I noticed that the protagonist of the comic was a young blonde, with short hair, named Nicole, and I also found that the work had an afterword signed by my hostess, under the following heading: "Par Nicole Muchnik, journaliste au Nouvel Observateur dans les années 70, dont le combat a inspirée ce récit" (For Nicole Muchnik, journalist at the Nouvel Observateur in the 1970s, whose combat has inspired this story).

-What does this mean? I said dumbfounded.

"Things from the past," Nicole answered with a smile, trying, as usual, to avoid talking about herself.

I have known Nicole for a quarter of a century, but her reserved nature has forced me to discover her like someone peeling back the layers of an onion. Thus, little by little, I learned that she was born in Tunisia, then a French protectorate, where her parents had settled, and that some time after finishing school she went to Paris with the firm determination to be a journalist. Her collaborations in Tunisia with the influential magazine Jeune Afrique and other media opened the door for her to the progressive weekly Le Nouvele Observateur, first in the documentation service and then in the newsroom, where she eventually came to occupy the position of head of information. I also knew that she is an amazing painter, who paints out of necessity –as honest artists do– in his small workshop packed with paintings and sketches, and even today I am surprised that he has not received the recognition he deserves. And now, when Nicole is about to re-establish herself in France after almost five decades in Spain, I learn, by lucky chance, that she was the origin of one of the greatest milestones in the history of French feminism, an act supreme law of civil disobedience that shook the foundations of the country and led four years later to the decriminalization of abortion.

Everything is nimbly narrated by Adeline Laffite and Hélène Strag and wonderfully illustrated by Hervé Duphot in Le Manifeste des 343, published by Marabulles publishing house last year on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of the historic document. Nicole, who in 1970 worked as a reporter for L'Obs, was outraged by the ordeal of women who made the decision to interrupt their pregnancy and by the often dangerous conditions for health in which clandestine operations were carried out. The contraceptive pill, whose use was already widespread in the US, had barely entered France. Nicole had had a personal experience of abortion and she felt that she should do something to end the ban on her, but she didn't know where to start. Suddenly, it occurred to her to go to the Women's Liberation Movement (MLM), at that time the most active feminist organization in the country, and she proposed to her coordinator to give a blow of opinion to change the mentality of society. . Her proposal was quite daring: summon women willing to publicly acknowledge that they had had an abortion and ensure that there were at least a handful of celebrities among them to achieve a greater social impact. This confession could lead to prison sentences, but that was what it was about: launching an open challenge to the French judicial, political and moral framework historically dominated by men.

Anne Zelensky, an outstanding leader of the feminist movement, contacted the writer Simone de Beauvoir, one of the most respected intellectuals in Europe, and she enthusiastically offered to sponsor the initiative, putting her contact list at the service of the cause . She began a series of weekly meetings with the author of The Second Sex in her studio in the Montparnasse neighborhood to define her strategy. "Simone spoke little. She surprised and almost moved me the way she listened to each one of us. A very special atmosphere was created," Nicole recalls. Finally, after having brought together 343 women, including Marguerite Duras, Françoise Sagan, Agnès Varda, Catherine Deneuve or Jeanne Moreau, the decision was made to carry out the rebellion in the form of a manifesto. De Beauvoir offered to draft it and even sign it, despite the fact that she later revealed that she had never had an abortion. Following its approval by the group, and at the suggestion of the writer, the text was first sent to Le Monde, but its director refused to publish it due to the consequences it might have for the newspaper. De Beauvoir did not give up and tried to have it inserted as an advertisement, which she would pay for. Nor was it possible. Finally, on April 5, 1971, Le Nouvele Observateur published the exclusive full front page: "The list of 343 French women who have had the courage to sign the manifesto 'I have had an abortion'". The document began: "One million women abort each year in France. They do so in dangerous conditions due to the secrecy to which they are condemned, when this operation, performed under medical supervision, is one of the simplest. Join the Silence these millions of women. I declare that I am one of them. I declare that I have had an abortion. Just as we demand free access to contraceptives, we demand free abortion."

Such provocation had the effect of an atomic bomb. The circulation of the newspaper reached unknown figures. A week later, the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo joined the insurrection with a corrosive front page mocking one of the most prominent anti-abortion politicians: "Who impregnated the 343 bitches in the abortion manifesto?" Two months later, the German weekly Stern published a letter with the title We have had an abortion!, signed by 374 women, among them the actresses Romy Schneider and Senta Berger. A couple of years later, 331 French doctors released a manifesto revealing that they had performed abortions...

Despite the fact that the goal of stirring society's conscience had been achieved, Nicole suffered a great disappointment because the director of her newspaper, the legendary Jean Daniel, had entrusted the management and presentation of the manifesto to the veteran head of documentation, who in the corridors of the newspaper the authorship of the initiative was arrogated. "That hurt me a lot, not so much because he pushed me away from handling the news, but because it was thought to be more credible for a man to handle it," Nicole tells me.

However, they did not manage to remove her from the news: the name of Nicole Muchnik is among the 343 signatories of the manifesto that changed the course of the history of French feminism and, why not, of France. And with regard to the origin of the initiative, half a century after that event, the book Le Manifeste des 343 – I strongly recommend publishing it in Spanish – has definitely put things in their place.

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