Gisèle Halimi – the star on duty? Le procès de Bobigny and the media

Gisele Halimi, lawyer and activist, transformed the case of an illegal abortion by a 16-year-old girl, Marie-Claire Chevalier, into a highly politicised media trial – the trial of Bobigny in 1972. Halimi drew upon her contacts in the public sphere to transform an individual case of a young girl to represent women’s bodily autonomy. Chevalier was acquitted and the trial became the French equivalent of Roe vs Wade, a landmark case for the pro-choice movement, resulting in the lawmakers voting to legalise abortion in 1975. This significant moment for the pro-choice movement is a clear success for Halimi, yet she came under criticism for the nature of her activism, in this case and others; she was accused of becoming a quasi-celebrity, placing herself too much in the centre of her campaigns. However, considering her many successes, including influencing a change in abortion law, is this valid criticism or intellectual snobbery?

Throughout her career, Halimi recognised the need for médiatisation[i] in public debate and the trial of Bobigny was not the first time she used well-known figures to achieve this; during the Djamila Boupacha trial, she used Simone de Beauvoir’s privileged status to bring the trial to the forefront of public debate and to bring respectability to the cause [ii]. The Bobigny trial was no different, Halimi using well-known figures to attract media attention to the case. However, she was accused of being a “star on duty”[iii] by Annie Cohen in Le Nouvel Observateur, essentially accusing her of being a celebrity rather than an intellectual.

In response to this criticism, we must consider the role of an intellectual in society. Among the many definitions, Émile Durkheim highlights an intellectual’s commitment to the quest for justice, and Sartre expresses his belief that the position should be used to advocate for the masses[iv]. The overarching consensus is that, as well as acting as a critic for society, that intellectuals should be devoted to defending the masses in the face of injustice.

Pictured below is Halimi with Delphine Seyrig, actress and director, who testified at the trial as a member of Choisir, the pro-choice movement founded by Halimi and Beauvoir. This image may prove Cohen’s point, Halimi being “papped” outside of court, alongside a well-known actress. However, as it was Halimi’s intention to, not only defend the specifics of the case, but to manipulate it to represent the pro-choice movement as a whole. Therefore, her inclusion of public personalities as witnesses at the trial attracted media attention in a way that it would otherwise not, increasing the scope of the case.

Figure 1: Halimi (left) with Seyrig (right)

Upon studying this image further, it is clear that Halimi was not trying to present herself as a celebrity; while Seyrig appears as a classic movie star with a leather jacket, sunglasses and a cigarette in her hand, Halimi beside her has a more subdued, academic look, dressed in a lawyer’s gown, and neither woman is posing for the image, despite their apparent awareness of the presence of the photographer. Although this photograph does not convey the subtleties of the pro-choice argument nor of the trial, it creates a public image of the trial and influences how it was perceived; two well-respected women, a lawyer and an actress, their physical closeness reflecting their united stance in defending abortion. Halimi’s use of well-known figures was not only to maximise the reach of the trial, it also conveyed the idea that there is not a ‘type’ of woman who has an abortion, with both Halimi and Seyrig counting among the signatories of the Manifeste des 343 women who publicly declared themselves to have illegally had an abortion in Le Nouvel Observateur the previous year. Furthermore, the background shows both police and journalists and, although they are not the focal point of the image, they demonstrate the extent to which the trial attracted both media attention and controversy.

Critics of Halimi argued that she further undermined her legitimacy as an intellectual by her reliance on her own life and experiences in public debate, rather than acting as a more removed critic of society. Such personal testimonies, as detailed in La cause des femmes (1973) and Djamila Boupacha (1962), her most notable works, were viewed as anti-intellectual by contemporary feminist, Elisabeth Badinnter. Badinter claimed that if intellectuals write about themselves, “c’est trop souvent qu’ils n’ont plus grande-chose à dire[v]. However, for Halimi, both her appearances on screen and her personal testimonies were a means to an end, reflecting her conviction that, “pour convaincre, il faut mettre de sa vie, mettre de soi[vi], employing any method to convince that she deemed effective.

Figure 2: Watch video here

The video above is an extract from a news report of the trial. It opens with images of Halimi guiding Chevalier through the crowds, the newsreader posing the question if, upon finding out that they are pregnant, “les femmes d’aujourd’hui sentent-elles libres de le vouloir ou de le refuser”. The overlay of this audio on the image of Halimi places her at the centre of, not only this trial, but the whole debate over abortion and women’s rights. Halimi walks through the supporters, grasping their hands and smiling, far from the archetypal aloof French intellect. The video then goes on to show Halimi talking to the press, expressing how Chevalier’s case was “un pas irréversible vers un changement de loi”. She is surrounded by microphones and journalists, speaking in a clear, measured tone, with Chevalier and her mother standing by her side, although the subject of the clip is very much still Halimi. She does not shy away from demonstrating that her involvement in the case was more than professional, with her arm around Chevalier, showing solidarity and compassion.

Halimi chose her words carefully, aware of the large audience of television, which by 1969, was the most pervasive mass medium in France [vii]. She used this press statement to build her case outside the courtroom, using her words as “instruments professionnels[viii], despite claims that mass media has limitations for conveying intellectual thought, Régis Debray arguing that there was “un rapport inverse entre la valeur informative d’un message et sa communicabilité[ix], despite its ability to combine auditory and visual elements and reach a large audience.

Figure 3: Front cover: Une Farouche Liberté

Above is the cover page of Une Farouche Liberté, a graphic novel published in September 2022 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the trial, relating her role in the Bobigny trial and acting as a testimony to her presence in the media. The image is stylised, Halimi immortalised in her court attire, dominating the front cover, depicted as the main character. As the focal point of the image, Halimi is portrayed in striking dark colours, contrasting against the yellow background. Shown behind her are some iconic French landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral, as well as palm trees, less typically French. This backdrop implies the degree of both domestic and international importance the trial had.

The centrality of Halimi portrays her as a celebrity figure, although, in contrast to the criticism of 50 years ago, it is in a positive light. This reflects the changing role of the intellectual in society but also the expected readership of this graphic novel; readers will likely be pro-choice and feminist, and therefore support Halimi, regardless of intellectual pretensions. Graphic novels are a relatively recent way of storytelling, combining texts and images, with the term first used in 1978[x], and the idolisation of Halimi could also be due to this new genre; comics typically have a hero-like protagonist who is the focus of the narrative.

Ultimately, despite a degree of disdain for her embrace of mass and non-traditional media, Halimi is remembered and celebrate for her role in the legalisation of abortion in France. She was not afraid to get her hands dirty and get personally involved in cases and debates, and skilfully used her network and position of privilege to advocate for causes she believed in. These methods led to a degree of personal fame, arguably fulfilling the role of “the star on duty” as a by-product of her commandment of the mass media, but considering the effectiveness of her methods and her commitment to advocating for the voiceless, it is irrelevant and reductive to focus on this aspect of Halimi’s work.


Figure 1:

Source : Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace, 28/07/2020

Photo d’archives Michel CLEMENT/AFP

Figure 2: L’INA, 26/12/1972

Figure 3: ACTUABD, 11/09/2022

Publisher : Éditions Steinkis

Further Reading

Debray, Régis. 1979. Le pouvoir intellectuel en France. Paris: Éditions Ramsay, Folio essais .

Oliver, K. and Walsh, L. eds. 2005. Contemporary French Feminism . Oxford University Press.

Halimi, Gisèle. 1992. La cause des femmes. Paris: Gallimard.

Halimi, Gisèle and Beauvoir, Simone de. 1962. Djamila Boupacha. Paris: Gallimard.

Kritzman, edited by Lawrence D. 2007. The Columbia history of twentieth-century French thought. Columbia University Press.

Kruks, Sonia. 2005. “Simone de Beauvoir and the Politics of Privilege.” Hypatia, 20 178-205.

Kuhn, Raymond. 2011. The Media in Contemporary France. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Long, I. 2013. Women Intellectuals in Post-68 France : Petitions and Polemics. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Rosello, Mireille. 2004. “Gisèle Halimi entre plainte et plaidoyer: ‘On naît avocate, on ne le devient pas’.” Modern & Contemporary France, Volume 12, Issue 3 287-298.

Simons, Margaret A., and Timmermann, Marybeth. 2015. Feminist Writings. University of Illinois Press.

Sowell, Thomas. 2012. Intellectuals and Society. Basic Books.

Thompson, Jon. 2022. The Chicago School of Media Theory: graphic novel . Accessed November 09, 2022.


[i] Long, 2013. P13

[ii] Kruks, 2005.

[iii] Simons and Timmermann, 2015.  P189

[iv] Kritzman, 2007.

[v] Long, 2013. P86

[vi] Long, 2013. P71

[vii] Kuhn, 2011.

[viii] Rosello, 2004.

[ix] Debray, 1979. P340

[x] Thompson, 2022.


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