FEMFACTS
26 Apr 2019

Gynecologists threaten to halt abortion as negotiation leverage, delighting the right-wing

A Europe-wide movement determined to roll back women’s reproductive rights frequently uses websites posing as media outlets to advance its agenda. Recently their French branch seized the opportunity to promote anti-choice views.

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Gynecologists threaten to halt abortion as negotiation leverage, delighting the right-wing  - NewsMavens
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Amidst negotiations on an unrelated topic, the French gynecologist union Syngof called for its members to be ready to withhold abortions as a way to put pressure on Anne Buzyn, the Health Minister of France.

The threat was followed by an immediate public condemnation, the intervention of feminist groups and 13,000 emails sent to the National Council of the College of Physicians. The institution, charged with defending and regulating medical professions, decided to take action against the union's president Bertrand de Rochambeau, the secretary Elisabeth Paganelli and ex-president and member of the administration board Jean Marty.

Drawing on the reports of CitizenGo, the website Media-Presse Info defended the union’s call for an "abortion strike" as a tool of negotiation with the Health Ministry and criticized the decision of the French National Council of the College of Physicians to start disciplinary proceedings against the three Syngof members.

Although it is never explicitly stated on its pages, it is not hard to uncover Media-Presse Info's (MPI)  links with the Civitas Institute, a traditionalist Catholic association turned into a political party fighting against women's and LGBTQ rights in an effort that they call the "re-Christianization of Europe". It is part of a broad network of websites and organizations of European Christian traditionalists, that runs way beyond the borders of France (CitizenGo is a prominent Spain-based petition platform of the same network).

WHAT'S THE CLAIM?

MPI starts with introducing an unrelated claim about alleged “daily attacks on churches”:

"Very quickly, the College of Physicians was ordered to intervene following pressure (in contrast the three churches attacked every day on average do not worry the government)", the website writes.

Also according to Media-Presse Info, the "freedom of conscience" of French gynecologists who do not want to perform abortions is not being respected:

"Freedom of conscience is the doctors’ right... But there are rights, and there are republican dogmas such as abortion or the Veil Law [the law which legalized abortion]".

The author of the article, Léo Kersauzie (a pseudonym) then denounces the reactions of "feminist lobbies" and concludes by saying that:

"...It is stupefying to observe the extent of the audacity of the partisans of the culture of death. They incite the killing of fetuses in the maternal womb and ask sanctions against those who refuse to accomplish such dirty work".

WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

On March 12, Syngof sent an email to its 2,000 members (about 40% of all the gynecologists working in France) to stand ready to start an abortion strike on their signal. The email was leaked on social media and provoked an immediate public uproar, followed by aforementioned sanctions.

"The union is facing the Public authorities' refusal to deal with this issue and it is too technical to interest the media (...) Prepare for the union to order you to stop practicing abortions if the Minister refuses to see us", the email reads.

In France, the conscience clause allows gynecologists to refuse to practice abortion on the basis of their moral, ethical or religious beliefs. It is part of the Veil Law that was passed in 1975. The president of Syngof, Bertrand de Rochambeau, himself uses the right to refuse to perform abortions, which he recently called "a homicide". However hindering abortion has been an offense since 1993.

But the Syngof’s call had nothing to do with the legality of the conscience clause, nor was it asking its members to refer to it in the planned refusal to perform abortions. Indeed, the email states, this "abortion strike" was to be used simply as leverage in negotiations, to put pressure on the Health Minister and force her to hear the union's demands. The issue being negotiated concerned an unrelated matter -- doctors’ insurance funds in case of medical accidents harming a patient.

So the MPI’s whole argument about "freedom of conscience", the Veil Law  and a supposed “call for sanctions against those who refuse to perform abortions” has virtually no grounding in fact. None of those issues or rights were on the table at any point.

As for the claim that “three churches are attacked every day”, while it clearly has nothing to do with the issue at hand (nor is it in any way under the Health Ministry’s competences), it is one worth mentioning, as the story has been going around for a while. Recently it prompted a fact-check from Libération’s CheckNews project, showing it to be a gross overstatement, derived from Interior ministry’s information that there were 1063 “acts against Christians" committed in France in 2018 (which amounts to about 3 per day).

The full information lists statistics for all attacks related to religious intolerance and any acts damaging religious objects. The report emphasizes a sharp increase in antisemitic incidents in 2018, while stating that the number of “acts against Christians" has remained basically unchanged. However, the number of 1,063 acts does not equate to 1,063 “attacks on churches”, nor can it be attributed only to acts motivated by religious intolerance. In response to Libération, the ministry has said that less than a 1,000 were “degradations” (acts of vandalism), out of which "two-thirds, or even three-fourths concern religious buildings, and the rest are of cemeteries."

"It is complicated, however, to define what is an “anti-religious” act of vandalism, as this notion emcompasses a wide range of acts. Indeed, any graffiti can be registered as a degradation, at the same level with an attack against a tabernacle or destruction of religious material. The Ministry of Interior mentions, for instance, satanist inscriptions, the number 666, the crossed A of anarchy, swastikas, as well as Allah Akbar," Libération writes.

Who is presenting the information?

Media-Presse Info presents itself as "an original media aiming to popularize information in a manner that is deliberately objective, free and without compromise". It is followed by more than 24,000 people on Facebook. But the choice of information, the way it is presented and the vocabulary used places it within the deep and abundant French far-right Internet nebula, in which the traditionalist Catholic agenda finds a comfortable place, with connections reaching beyond the borders of France.

The website is barely hiding its sympathy with other traditionalist movements working against women's rights. Indeed, the first line of the article defending the abortion strike starts with: "CitizenGo signals several events that have taken place in the past weeks against the Syngof and Dr Rochambeau". As NewsMavens has already reported, CitizenGo is an international petition platform emanating from HazteOir, a Spanish NGO with a conservative and ultra-catholic vision of family and education.

MPI's site was registered anonymously in 2013, but the name “Civitas” appeared as the website administrator in 2014. Founded in 1999 with the slogan "for a Catholic society", it is currently lead by Alain Escada, a Belgian far-right and traditionalist Catholic activist. Under his command, Civitas has become a political party and lobbied against same-sex marriage in France. Alain Escada also co-founded the European party “Coalition for Life and Family” which promotes "traditional Catholic values" like the opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

In 2016, Rue89 investigated several websites that have been known to propagate conspiracy theories and misinformation, among which  is Media Presse. They contacted François-Xavier Péron, media and politics advisor of Civitas, whose name appears on the certificate of registration. He said he only had a technical role in the creation of the website but that the people in charge of it share similar values. The name on the registry was then changed from Agnès-Florence Rousseau to Agnès Rousseau. In 2018, the registry was entirely anonymized.

On social media, Civitas almost exclusively shares articles published by MPI. According to Facebook, the main administrators of the page Media Presse Info are located in France and Belgium, where Alain Escada is from. Civitas' actions are widely covered by MPI -- it appears among the most used keywords along with "Immigration", "Islam", "LGBT", "Marine Le Pen", "Abortion", etc.

A reverse Whois search reveals that Civitas has registered various websites, including one in Poland, linked to a church of the small border town of Leknica which organizes "rosary prayers to protect the borders of Poland”. Agnès Rousseau also has other "media" websites registered in her name, all with clear Catholic colours and content emanating from Media-Presse.

Civitas, Alain Escada, François-Xavier Péron and Agnès-Florence Rousseau all appear in laudatory terms on the website of La Porte Latine (the Latin door), the "official website of the French district of the Society of Saint Pius X". It is an international traditionalist Catholic community founded in 1970 by the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was extremely critical of the Vatican and excommunicated in 1988. The Website Media-Presse Info appears several times in their monthly bulletin.

MPI has seen its audience decline over the past couple of years. But there are many similar websites covering the same topics, mostly in similar ways, reaching the same audience and promoting the same people. This network, sometimes referred to as “Fachosphère” on French Twitter, is a strong and very integrated network in France and beyond.

According to Alexa, MPI's audience is also fond of websites like Egalité et Réconciliation (265th most visited website in France), founded by the far-right essayist Alain Soral who was convicted on April 15th 2019 to one year in prison for Holocaust denial. His lawyer, Damien Viguier, is a prominent figure of the Fête du Pays Réel (Real Country Party) organised by Civitas.

Another popular website consulted by the MPI's audience is Boulevard Voltaire (863rd in France according to Alexa’s rankings). It was co-founded by Robert Ménard, mayor of the city of Béziers who, among other things, believes in the “Great Replacement” -- a conspiracy theory claiming there’s a plot to replace white Christian Europeans with populations coming from Africa and the Middle East. Boulevard Voltaire is often more careful in its choice of words, but does not hide its sympathies. Talking about the procedure of the College of Physicians against the Syngof, the site mocks "fanatic feminists who got into a trance" and criticizes the fact that "nowadays, it is enough for a doctor to show a moderate enthusiasm for one of the trendy modernist deconstruction (gay marriage, open-bar euthanasia, medically assisted procreation for same-sex couples, gender theory and all the rest [like the right to get an abortion]) to 'discredit the profession' and be shot in the head."

CONCLUSION

MPI is one of many  French websites acting as a shill for organizations which propagate the Christian traditionalist agenda under the pretence of offering “different and more objective information” in opposition to "mainstream media". This article shows some of the manipulative tactics they use in order to achieve that goal.

Specifically, the claim that calling 2,000 doctors to stop performing abortions as a negotiation tool falls within the conscience clause is an example of disinformation and manipulation of facts -- and the same goes for the claim about “attacks on churches”. This particular claim can also be rated as an attempt to spin unfavorable facts and change the focus of the discussion from the actions of Syngof to alleged “persecution of Christians”. The derogatory vocabulary employed to describe the feminist movement and the right to abortion, we rate as antifeminist backlash.

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