To protests from women's groups and many on the political left, the Senate voted yesterday to extend the traditional presidential amnesty to anti- abortion protesters, a group which had been excluded from it by the lower house.
By Senate standards, the vote was unusually close. It was passed by 113 votes to 109, with the Socialists and Communists all voting against, and the right split. But the very tabling of the amendment, by a retired interior minister, Christian Bonnet, is seen by many as the thin edge of a neo-conservative wedge.
Although the new provision applies only to those involved in non-violent protests, it is seen by opponents as giving the green light to further protests and calling into question the Veil law. A Socialist senator yesterday described it as "an act of appeasement in a religious war".
What made the issue contentious was that two courts had just reached widely diverging verdicts on anti-abortion campaigners. A judge in Lyons had imprisoned 16 defendants for an attack on an abortion clinic, while a judge in Paris acquitted another group a few weeks later, on the grounds that because no abortions were due to be performed that day, their protest was not punishable.
Behind the resurgence of abortion as an issue, after two decades in which women have taken the right to an early abortion almost for granted - more than 170,000 abortions are performed annually - are two factors. The first is the belated spread of the principles and methods of the American anti- abortion campaign. The second is a fear that the Chirac government supports a more traditional role for women.
Six members of Mr Chirac's government, and Mr Chirac himself, voted against the extension of Ms Veil's abortion law in 1979. And although Mr Chirac has 12 women in his government, one of the most senior, Colette Codaccione, Minister for Solidarity Between Generations, opposes abortion and appointed as head of her private office the daughter of a well-known anti-abortion campaigner.Reuse content