Paris rental bikes deliver unexpected anti-abortion messages

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 Since being launched in 2007, Paris’ public Vélib’ rental bikes have proven a hit with tourists and locals as a trouble-free way to get around the French capital, especially in summer when Metro trains are hot and crowded.

This year, however, the popular bikes have unwittingly become embroiled in a controversy with its roots in a fierce debate raging at the heart of French, and European, society.

In recent weeks, activists have turned some Vélib’ cycles into billboards featuring unexpected messages from a guerrilla advertising campaign opposing abortion rights.

The campaign has sparked outrage, with politicians and women’s rights groups condemning the move.

Stickers first began appearing in May, when Parisians and tourists woke up to find neighborhood public bikes covered in decals showing a fetus growing into a happy-looking boy riding a bike with this slogan: “And if you had let him live?”

The decals prompted backlash from government officials with Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo calling them “unacceptable and illegal.” France’s minister for gender equality, Isabelle Rome, vowed the country wouldn’t let anyone undermine abortion rights.

The guerrilla campaign is the work of a group called Les Survivants, according to a statement posted on its website after the stickers began appearing. The group says its name refers to people born post-1975 who “survived” the threat of abortion, which was legalized in France that year.

It was, the group said in a statement issued May 24, a response to efforts to make abortion a constitutional right in France.

“At a time when a proposed law aims to enshrine abortion in the constitution, The Survivors have decided to act on behalf of all those we miss,” the statement said. “We will not tolerate a dichotomous supreme standard in which abortion becomes a fundamental right, like the right to life.”

Suzy Rojtman, a spokesperson for the French National Collective for Women’s Rights said the campaign demonstrated an urgent need for France to secure abortion laws.

“We are worried, we are wary because we know this right could always be challenged and the United States has proven this,” Rojtman said.

The US Supreme Court’s 2022 overturn of Roe v. Wade, a ruling that made abortion a federal constitutional right, sent shockwaves across French society. In response, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his solidarity with “the women whose liberties are being undermined by the Supreme Court of the United States.”

In the following months, the French government moved to introduce a bill that would inscribe abortion rights into the constitution. The proposal  has stalled after lawmakers in the lower house and upper house disagreed on wording.

Representatives in the National Assembly, where Macron’s party is the biggest force, voted for a bill that would  list abortion as a “right” in the constitution while the conservative-dominated French Senate only agreed to listing abortion as a “freedom.” In French legal context, a “right” is protected by the government in a more active manner than a “freedom.”

The assembly standoff comes amid prominent opposition to abortion in some of France’s neighbors – most notably Italy, a country with strong Roman Catholic traditions.

Calls for justice

Italy’s Minister of Family, Eugenia Roccella, voiced her opposition to extending the use of Mifepristone, a common abortion pill, in an interview in 2022 with Italian newspaper Quotidiano Nazionale, calling it home abortion “abolishing conscientious objection and the legal obligation.”

In Spain, the center-right People’s party and far-right Vox party have been challenging the country’s abortion law, in effect  since 2010. There have been similar moves elsewhere in Europe, with Poland and Hungary curtailing abortion access.

Meanwhile, Vélib’, the company which runs the public bike system in Paris, says it is unhappy to see its two-wheeled charges being drafted into the debate.

It called the sticker campaign uncivilized and said it “may have confused the general public.” It said it has begun legal action against the anti-abortion group.

“It’s shocking that some people ignore all advertising regulations,” Vélib’ President Sylvain Raifaud said in a statement, adding that perpetrators must be brought to justice.

Raifaud also vowed to return the bikes to their original status as quickly as possible. Vélib’ has yet to confirm how many bikes are impacted and when they will be restored.

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