– Article by Alice Ferré
On June 30th, France said goodbye to another one of its most influential figures. Simone Veil, politician and member of the Academy – the higher honorary title for the French intelligentsia, – “embodied tradition and modernity,” as a “great lady from the old times” standing like a symbol of women rights progress and European hope.
But Simone Veil also incarnated darker moments of France’s history, like the Shoah. Growing up in a Jewish household for cultural rather than religious reasons, she received a patriotic and secular education in the first quarter of the 20th century. In 1940, her family falls apart: her father, who cherished an unconditional love for his country and the principles of “La République,” that he defended during World War I, was forbidden to exercise his job, deprived of his citizenship, and arrested by the Germans three years later.
The 16-year-old Simone got deported with her mother and sister one year after, on April 13th, 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau; Simone escaped the gas chambers upon the advice of one deportee who told her to pretend she was 18. Simone and her sister survived the death march organized by the Nazis from Auschwitz to Loslau in January 1945, although her mother won’t. Her father and brother died without leaving a trace.
While some would be forever altered by such inhumane catastrophe, others found in it incredible strength and energy, as if having a family and a job constituted a victory on Nazism. Simone Veil certainly belonged to that second category of people. She kept her tattooed concentration camp number, 78651, on her arm as a reminder of her past. It acted as a fuel during her battles.
Studies, marriage, children… and a political career. “To be and remain independent, a woman must have a job,” declared Veil, although her husband originally opposed this idea. In the late 1960s, only 40% of women were active. Veil also supported the youth during the 1968 protests that hit France and led to many bloody clashes between the police and students. Contrarily to others from her generation, she stated that the French lived in an immobile, frozen society.
Symbol of women empowerment and emancipation, she became the first woman General Secretary of the Superior Council of the Magistrature. She struck the most impactful move of her career as Ministry of Health in 1974 – a job she thought wasn’t suited for her, being a former Magistrate.
On November 26th, Simone Veil gave a pro-abortion speech as the “Laissez-les vivre” (“Let them live”) protesters waited anxiously outside of the Palais-Bourbon. The debate was virulent: Anti-abortion Jura deputy René Feït played the heartbeats of an eight-week fetus while Maine-et-Loire deputy Jean Foyer compared abortion clinics as “slaughterhouses where corpses of little humans pile up.” Manche deputy Jean-Marie Daillet brought up the image of embryos “threw away in crematoria,” before declaring he was not aware of Simone Veil’s past.
Simone Veil won the anti-abortion debate, and the law was approved and passed in 1975.
Her battle for abortion rights got her revered and hated. For many years, she was the constant target of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s extreme right National Front party. In 1979, a brawl broke out when National Front supporters tried to disrupt a meeting she was speaking at in Paris. Veil then shouted: “Vous ne me faites pas peur! J’ai survécu a pire que vous!” — “You do not frighten me! I have survived worse than you!”
Most importantly, Simone Veil served a country that deported her family. She was a woman who was often depicted as the “only powerful, strong man of the government.” “To impose herself, a woman needs to be authoritative. I would have never reached my goals if I had not had such personality,” she explained.
She reached the position of President of the first European Parliament in 1979 with the great encouragement and appreciation of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, working towards a peaceful future for Europe with all her heart, fighting for a united continent away from the atrocities of war. Veil only left the political sphere in 1990 to join the Constitution Council where she became a watchdog for the respect of French laws from 1998 to 2007.
France did apologize and thank her for her pious services in 1995 when she became the President of the Shoah Memorial Foundation; then-President Jacques Chirac recognized France’s responsibility in the genocide. In 2009, Simone Veil received the highest honorary medal, the Legion of honor.
At Veil’s funeral, President Emmanuel Macron saluted her, announcing she would be buried in the Pantheon, the Parisian mausoleum where 72 of the most appreciated cultural and historical figures rest. Veil, who also received the full military honors during the ceremony, will be the fifth woman buried there.