Les Lilas, and women everywhere, are under attack

In France, women’s health and autonomy are under attack. When Francois Hollande ran for office, he made great promises. He promised that the maternity hospital “Les Lilas,” would not close down after having been the target of the conservative financial restructuration. Now he’s backtracking, and women’s reproductive rights are likely to be compromised.

The maternity hospital “Les Lilas” is located in a diverse area in the North of Paris. Les Lilas was built in 1964 with the feminist agenda to serve women’s needs. A privately run not-for-profit hospital, Les Lilas serves and participates in the public health care system. Les Lilas has historically been the symbol of women’s struggles for reproductive rights.

Today, the team of medical staff offers, with equal enthusiasm, obstetrical, gynecololical and abortion services to all women regardless of their social status or ethnicity. Their approach is integrative, making women’s needs and desire a priority. The feminist and militant aspect of the care they deliver departs from the current trend of cutting public services, including health care.

During the Sarkozy years the idea of profitability was extended to medical care. This was new for the French health care system. Sarkozy’s administration introduced a tariff arrangement that relegated care behind accounting. Now, President Hollande, having forgotten promises to save Les Lilas, has submitted the hospital to the same neoliberal profit motive.

Les Lilas needed funds for necessary renovations. These renovations were delayed making the hospital more dependent on credit for financing. Then, a tariff system was implemented devaluating abortion, which is a great part of its activity. Basically, the tariff devalued all health care services offered to women. This conjunction of devaluations typifies how women’s lives are undervalued in general.

Then, more regulations came to unfairly impose medical services upon Les Lilas, which forced the maternity hospital to invest money it did not have. These measures increased the hospital’s debt.

Across France, these conditionalities have forced many maternities to regroup, turning hospitals into “usines a bébés,” or baby factories.

When Les Lilas first needed some renovations, it had no debt. In fact, it was financially stable and had agreements to secure the future. With a debt forced upon it, the services provided to women are only measured in financial terms. With that shift, the hospital loses value.

The community, women and men, have joined together to counter this evolution. A collective committee has been formed; the staff of Les Lilas has been active using many media to show what this struggle means. Demonstrations have been organized with the support of many feminist and political groups. The last demonstration gathered 3000 people.

Isabelle Louis, of the French Movement for Family Planning and a member of the collective committee, told me that the negotiations with the regional health authority were difficult. Although the fund for renovations had been promised, the health authority now argues that running a deficit makes the delivery of that fund impossible. They use a new language of neoliberal accounting to confuse negotiations. The people used to be the actors and now they have become the developers. Isabelle Louis remarked how this neoliberal economic language has negated the social. This language talks of indicators of success, progress, and realization to respond to deficit with efficiency. However, this language has no term to analyze the health and well-being of the women who rely on “Les Lilas.”

Isabelle met with socialist Claude Evin, former minister of health and now general director of the regional health agency. He admitted that his obsession is to build more retirement medical homes than maternity hospitals. Of course, retirement facilities, unlike maternity hospitals, are part of a great market open to private investments. Isabelle has found the solution, “Let’s deliver babies in retirement medical centers!”

This tale is exemplary of the massive undertaking of neoliberal ideology on public systems. Women are under attack. In France, the progressive health care system and the reproductive health policies are threatened. France today, the United States yesterday, tomorrow … ? All of us, everywhere, need to pay attention to these signs.


(Photo Credit: La Maternité des Lilas Vivra)

About Brigitte Marti

Brigitte Marti is an organizer researcher who has worked on reproductive rights and women's health initiatives in France and in the European Union and on women prisoners' issues in the United States. She is a member of Women Included, a new transnational feminist collective, that is part of the Women 7, a coalition that advocates for the inclusion of women's rights in the G7.