Note: Jeanne Smits writes from France, where she attended the 7th Paris March for Life.

PARIS, France, January 24, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – About 40,000 people joined the Paris March for Life on Sunday afternoon: an unprecedented success.

For its 7th edition the pro-life rally was for the first time honored with a papal endorsement. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone’s letter bearing Pope Benedict’s personal blessing and encouragements reached the organizers on the Friday preceding the March, a development that led to mainstream media coverage announcing the venue.

No less than four bishops joined the March’s 2011 edition: Mgr Dominique Lebrun, of Saint-Etienne, was back after having been the first-ever French bishop to join last year. Mgr. Guy Bagnard, of Bellay-Ars, participated in the pre-March press conference before walking along with the crowd through the wide boulevards from the Place de la République to the heart of the city, the Place de l’Opéra, which proved almost too small to host all the participants.

Mgr. Marc Aillet, 53, who was nominated to the see of Bayonne by Pope Benedict in 2008, came with Catholics from his diocese. He is one the most outspoken French bishops on pro-life and family matters. From Austria, Mgr. Andreas Laun, auxiliary bishop of Salzburg, brought well-needed friendship and support.

Now four bishops might seem very few, but the growing presence of the Catholic hierarchy is already making a big difference. The collective body representing fifteen French pro-life groups and associations takes pains to keep the March non-confessional and non-partisan, all pro-lifers being equally welcome. But clearly the large majority of participants are Christian, and in a country with such a strong Catholic tradition, Catholics are by far the key group. Patiently building up goodwill with the French bishops is at last paying off and as a result growing numbers of faithful are now prepared to join in.

Something similar occurred with the vigil for all nascent human life called for by the Pope in November. Groups of young lay people mobilized on the Internet in October when only a few vigils had been officially announced, after news of the Pope’s request was published on pro-life blogs. But on the day itself not a single diocese was without a vigil, and an estimated 400 churches, chapels and communities took part all over the country. Many see the success of this year’s March for Life as a result of that dynamic.

The thousands of people who took to the streets on Sunday are especially significant this year as France is preparing to revise its “bioethics” law this spring, with legal experimentation on the human embryo as a central issue.

Mgr. Bagnard told me that was the main reason for his presence: “I think that when a vote is going to take place to revise our bioethics laws, we must give a sign to show and render manifest what we want; very simply, to defend life.”

This year I counted large numbers of diocesan priests, including many young priests from the Paris region who came alone or with groups of parishioners. This is a real novelty, which augurs a shift to greater outspokenness on life issues on the part of the Church. It’s probably the greatest sign of hope in one of the most secularized countries in Europe, where over 200,000 abortions per year go practically unnoticed by most, and where so-called “voluntary interruption of pregnancy” is presented as a right in law, in compulsory sex education programs in state-funded schools and in all the mainstream media.

Attending the march were people of all ages and from very many walks of life; but as is the case with such events in other countries, young people made up the largest group by far, followed by young families – often large families.

The spirit of the march was festive and jubilant: “We want laws for life, today, not tomorrow!” many chanted, or “No mother should be hounded into killing her own child!”

As the March closed on the Place de l’Opéra, French history professor Philippe Isnard, from Manosque (South of France), spoke to the crowd about his suspension from his job in a secondary school for having organized a debate about abortion, during which he showed graphic images of abortions. He read excerpts from a letter from the French education minister, Luc Chatel, to one of his supporters: the letter clearly stated that teachers in state-funded schools are forbidden to present material questioning abortion laws.

Several foreign delegations joined the Paris march, including representatives from Romania, the Czech Republic, Italy, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium. Pro-lifers from these two last countries told me they now have a new issue to contend with: plans to build “euthanasia clinics” dedicated exclusively to helping patients out of this world after a short (and cost-effective?) stay of about three days.