Simone Veil image from Les Survivants’ campaign website. Screenshot: simoneforever.com
When Simone Veil, the feminist revered for legalising abortion in France, died in June 2017, a striking portrait of her, in the style of Shepard Fairy’s iconic Barack Obama “Hope” poster, appeared on a new website bearing her name.
The image, apparently the work of a graphic designer called “Juliette”, was also sent to a number of journalists and offered for their license-free use. Shared more than 20,0000 times on Facebook, it was an online, social phenomenon.
Veil, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, served as Minister for Health in France as well as President of the European Parliament and was only the fifth woman in history to be buried in the Patheon after an emotional digital campaign demanded that she be laid to rest there.
What happened next was weird.
SimoneVeil.com, with its stylised stencil imagery, offered visitors a documentary on Veil, in which it was claimed that she’d changed her views on abortion, and that in her later career she’d felt “betrayed by lawmakers”.
Her statements were twisted to say she regretted her role in bringing safe and legal abortion to France. This was never the case.
Veil was proud of her achievement, and had once commented on how much she enjoyed it when young women recognised and thanked her, as abortion legalisation had ended the “barbary and butchery of women”.
Véronique Séhier, co-president of Family Planning France said the website presented a “complete reversal” of her discourse. Veil’s children filed a legal complaint against the group behind it, and it moved to a new domain name.
The stunt was the biggest, but not the most controversial, of anti-abortion activists in France who call themselves “Les Survivants”, claiming to be the “statistical survivors of abortion”.
Emile Duport, CEO of a digital agency called NewSoul is Les Survivants’ leader. I spoke to him last summer about their "digital and cultural guerilla tactics".
He explained how they were reframing the conversation to reach new, young audiences. “Repositioning Les Survivants as victims of abortions”, he said, means “you have a victim facing another victim and it re-balances the debate”.
He told me this campaign was an example of their “digital and cultural guerilla tactics”
In France, 75% of people supported abortion rights in 2014, compared to under 50% in the 1970s when Veil led efforts to legalise it. Abortion in France is now legal on demand up to 12 weeks, and after that under certain conditions.
As abortion had not been considered a divisive topic in France for years, Les Survivants surprised and unnerved many in June 2016 when they first brought dozens of young people out into the streets for a noisy anti-choice protest.
After a busy 2017, the group seemed to go quiet last year, posting just a couple of times on Twitter and Facebook, but they were named as one of the groups behind France’s 13th anti-abortion March for Life in Paris this month.
They are an example of new, anti-abortion activism in Europe specifically targeting young people, employing digital tools, disinformation campaigns and street demonstrations. Indeed, their activities have alarmed rights advocates.
They “are at the cutting edge of technology, and currently the pro-choice movements are struggling a bit to develop that type of support”, said Eloïse Malcourant, at Belgium’s Federation of Family Planning Centres.
Members of the volunteer security team at their 2016 protest were also filmed wearing stickers of Action Française, a far-right militant group.
Duport was previously the communications director of “La Manif Pour Tous”, an anti-LGBT rights group that also targets young recruits and was described by one researcher as “the most successful right wing phenomenon in decades”.
But Duport dismissed efforts “to categorise us as right-wing, left-wing, Catholics, etc”, telling me: “This is a humanitarian topic. It is like ecology for us. We try to give [it] a higher meaning".
Video games and celebrities
Public interest in Les Survivants grew further after they released a version of the furiously popular augmented reality game Pokemon Go, called “Save Pikachu” – in which players fall in love, get pregnant, and then choose whether or not to “interrupt the hatching of the egg”.
If the player decides to do this, fluffy, messages about “supporting young parents” to keep their “baby” are displayed on screen.
During France’s 2017 presidential elections, Les Survivants deployed more traditional guerrilla campaign tactics including illegal postering of the Paris metro. Advertisement posters were replaced with ones featuring faces of the candidates with 'soft', anti-abortion messaging.
Their messages included calls to politicians to “not close the borders of our lives”, mirroring the language of progressive campaigns. “France must be a place for all, so let us all have the chance to live”, their ads implored.
Mais enfin, c'est quoi dans le métro parisien ces pubs délirantes contre l'IVG ? D'habitude, la régie pub de la RATP est plus sourcilleuse pic.twitter.com/xNcii6qgma
— Laurent Delmas (@LtDelmas) April 25, 2017
They next hit bus shelters, replacing billboard posters with their images of foetal ultrasounds, supposedly representing Bob Marley, Gandhi and Einstein, and the words: “first selfie”.
Their weird website meanwhile features slickly-produced rap videos, young, (mainly male) kids tagging walls and skating alongside instagram visuals on how abortion “isn’t just about women”.
You can diagnose yourself as having “Abortion Survivor Syndrome” via the website’s list of symptoms: a lack of self-confidence, existential guilt, existential anguish or anxious detachment – things many teenagers may feel all the time.
An internal Les Survivants document, shown in the French documentary “Abortion: the crusaders fight back”, says explicitly the “the target must think they are on a website of young people who will not judge them or tell them what to do even if, in fact, this is what we seek to do”.
Duport has also involved digital and music celebrities in his projects.
Another of his websites, called “Afterbaiz” (“after sex”), is also aimed at young people with the French YouTuber Natoo video blogging on how to announce a ‘surprise’ pregnancy, and a whole section of testimonies from women apparently regretting their abortions.
One article on the site shared a song from the popular Toulouse rappers BigFlo & Oli, which features the supposed voice of a fetus, due to be aborted. “Why didn’t you want me?”, it asks. “Let me call you “Mummy”... I could have been a big artist, a Nobel prize [winner] or a gangster”.
In 2005, at just 25 years old, Duport launched the anti-abortion “Life Parade” supported by several organisations including the National Confederation of Catholic Family Associations (CNAFC).
According to Séhier, at Family Planning France, Duport would later pilot the French communication strategy of a Europe-wide anti-abortion campaign called “One of Us”. One of this network's French members is the Foundation Jérôme Lejeune (which is in turn tightly linked to the Catholic Church).
The foundation was among several foreign and far-right groups that targeted voters on Facebook ahead of the 2018 abortion referendum in Ireland. It was also listed, along with Les Survivants, among the organisers of the recent March for Life in Paris, with Renaissance Catholique, Choisir La Vie (“Choose Life”) and les Eveilleurs d’Espérance (“the Awakeners of Hope”).
Duport has also participated at Agenda Europe events. The manifesto of this anti-sexual and reproductive rights network proclaimed: “we should therefore not be afraid to be ‘unrealistic’ or ‘extremist’ in choosing our policy objectives”.
“We should therefore not be afraid to be ‘unrealistic’ or ‘extremist’ in choosing our policy objectives”
Duport told me he consults with foreign groups that “share his ideas” but insisted they provide no financial support for Les Survivants. He said the group is “more like a junior company”, supported by “some private donations”.
“We are not an NGO. We do not legally exist because it’s too complicated”, he added. In France, NGOs must publicly disclose annual financial accounts.
The well-connected activist said he’d got his previous job, as communications director of the anti-LGBT rights group La Manif Pour Tous, “through my network, as there are few people who know how to do communication amongst us”.
The initial mission of La Manif Pour Tous, founded in 2012, was to promote exclusively heterosexual marriage and adoption rights. It’s also campaigned for “freedom of expression” in opposition to anti-homophobia laws.
It claims to be a non-violent protest group – though their demonstrations have also been violent, attracting rising stars of France’s growing and complex far-right scene, including Marion Maréchal Le Pen, the former National Front MP.
According to the rights group SOS Homophobie, the emergence of La Manif Pour Tous led to a 78% increase in homophobic attacks.
A branch of this group was also established in Italy in 2015. Called Generazione Famiglia, it frequently collaborates with other anti-abortion campaigns including the ProVita association, which is itself closely linked to another far-right group known for violent demonstrations: Forza Nuova.
In the arena of extremist activities, the religious right and the far right appear to be inching ever closer. The risks this might pose to the teenage “targets” of Les Survivants remain to be seen – and will be important to watch.