Gisèle Halimi, influential French lawyer and feminist, 93

NEW YORK — Gisèle Halimi, a French lawyer, activist, and author who championed feminist causes and other human rights efforts for more than seven decades, playing a key role in the decriminalization of abortion in France, died at her home in Paris on July 28, one day after her 93rd birthday.

The death was confirmed by her son Emmanuel Faux.

As a lawyer, Ms. Halimi frequently sought to redress injustices against women and to seek justice for victims of torture in countries like Tunisia and Algeria, both of which were under French control when she began practicing law.


“She assumed the world was divided between oppressing and oppressed people,” said Violaine Lucas, a national secretary of Choisir La Cause des Femmes, a women’s rights organization that Ms. Halimi cofounded in 1971 with the author and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. “These convictions were in her guts.”

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Her cases were often high-profile and precedent-setting, and helped shift French laws and attitudes.

In 1960, during the Algerian war for independence, Ms. Halimi represented Djamila Boupacha, an Algerian nationalist who was charged with attempting to bomb a cafe near the University of Algiers and then raped and tortured while in French custody. Ms. Halimi encouraged her to pursue a case against her captors, an almost unheard-of course of action at the time, and the case became a cause célèbre in France after Beauvoir wrote about it in Le Monde at Ms. Halimi’s request.

Boupacha was eventually released and pardoned. (The case was the subject of a 2011 French TV movie, “Pour Djamila.”)

Ms. Halimi’s reflections on the case, with contributions from other writers, like Françoise Sagan, became her first book, with an introduction by de Beauvoir and a cover portrait of Boupacha by Pablo Picasso.


Ms. Halimi worked on another landmark case in 1972, this time focused on a teenage rape victim and her right to get an abortion, which was illegal at the time except in cases in which the life of the mother was in danger. The young woman, Marie-Claire Chevalier, was found innocent of committing a crime, and the trial helped shift the country’s abortion laws toward decriminalization.

Ms. Halimi’s legal advocacy work also helped strengthen France’s laws against rape and lead to the abolishment of the country’s death penalty.

Ms. Halimi had a reputation for being combative in her convictions, but her courtroom arguments were notably calm, surprising some judges and other lawyers. “They were expecting that she would be like a crazy woman,” said Emmanuel Pierrat, a lawyer and author who had watched Ms. Halimi try several cases. “Not at all.”

He added, in a phone interview: “As soon as she started to talk, everybody was silent. She had a commanding presence.”

Gisèle Halimi was born Zeiza Gisèle Élise Taïeb on July 27, 1927, in Tunis, in the port neighborhood of La Goulette. Her father, Edouard Taïeb, was a legal clerk; her mother, Fortunée (Metoudi) Taïeb, who was known as Fritna, was a homemaker. The household was extremely traditional and male-dominated.


When Gisèle was born, her father was so upset at the arrival of a daughter instead of a son that he kept her birth a secret for several weeks. Learning of this afterward, Ms. Halimi was stung by his reaction.

“She was always coming back to that,” said Annick Cojean, a senior reporter at the French newspaper Le Monde and coauthor of a book of conversations with Ms. Halimi.

From an early age, Ms. Halimi rebelled against her family’s expectations, its preferential treatment of her brothers, and a proposed arranged marriage. When she was 10 she went on a hunger strike to fight for more equal conditions within her family. She described the episode in the new book as “her first feminist victory.”

She excelled in school and decided as a teenager to become a lawyer. She went to Paris to earn her law degree and study philosophy at the Sorbonne.

In 1961, Ms. Halimi married Claude Faux, who was Sartre’s secretary; he died in 2017. An earlier marriage, to Paul Halimi, ended in divorce.

In addition to her son Emmanuel, she leaves two other sons, Jean-Yves Halimi and Serge Halimi; a brother and a sister; and two grandchildren.