Profile: Simone Veil

Auschwitz survivor, human rights champion, key European politician and Académie Française immortelle

Auschwitz survivor, human rights champion, key European politician and Académie Française immortelle – it is no surprise that Simone Veil, who turns 85 this month, is frequently voted one of France’s most popular figures

Few figures in French politics enjoy widespread support from people of all political persuasions. But while that is true of Simone Veil today, it took a lot of work at first for her to gain recognition.

Veil endured a torrent of public abuse after she addressed a National Assembly almost entirely composed of men, arguing for the legalisation of abortion in 1974. Colleagues likened her law to the “legalised barbarism” of the Nazi regime – something Veil was all too familiar with, since her Auschwitz prisoner number, 78651, remains tattooed on her arm. Swastikas were painted on her front door, but she only ever described the events as “difficult” – nothing more.

It is just one example of Veil’s modesty, courage and determination throughout her life. The abortion law, during her time as health minister, was her hardest political fight, and the one for which she is best-known. The law passed, as did an earlier piece of legislation from her, making access to contraception easier. Almost 30 years later, Veil remains an inspirational figure and has often been named one of France’s most liked people of all time.

It is widely said that Veil’s tragic experiences as a prisoner of the Nazis, aged just 16, were what gave her the courage to accomplish so much ever since. Rounded up with the rest of her atheist Jewish family and taken to Auschwitz just days after passing her baccalauréat, she and her sister survived to see the Liberation a year later. Her mother Yvonne, father André and brother Jean did not.

Veil returned to the site of the camps for the 60th anniversary of the Liberation in 2005 and has been critical of Hollywood adaptations of the atrocities, such as Schindler’s List. She is also angry that it took France 50 years to acknowledge the government’s official role in the deportation of Jews at the time.

While other camp survivors were drawn to exile in Israel, Veil remained faithful to France and accepted working for a country that had deporting its own citizens based on their religion. She met her future husband Antoine at university in Paris, married him a year later and three sons followed shortly afterwards. Veil was determined to become a magistrate and passed the tests in 1956, going on to spend more than 15 years working on criminal and civil cases. But it was a difficult career move, as Denis MacShane, a former Europe minister in the UK Labour government, notes in a recent review of Veil’s autobiography Une Vie: “At each stage of her life, Simone Veil had to overcome male resistance in one form or another: a loving, intellectual husband who saw the role of a wife and a mother as being at home and a judicial system that could not handle a woman determined to be a judge and expose wrongs in France’s ancient regime prison system.”

This struggle continued after Veil was recommended for a ministerial job under president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. As France’s first female health minister, hired explicitly to make abortion legal and promote women’s rights, she found herself working alongside “male politicians who want women as tokens in ministerial office but still see government as men’s business,” MacShane notes. This did nothing to put her off. Veil had long decided to commit herself politically to modernising her country – and her achievements on contraception and abortion laws were evidence of this. She also promoted the improvement of detention conditions in France’s prisons and led a reform on the right to adopt.

After suffering so much as a prisoner while European countries were at war with each other, it is perhaps fitting that Veil’s next job would be a key role in leading and reforming the new united Europe. Her election as president of the European parliament in 1979 was significant not just because of her background, but because she was the first woman to do the job (a running theme in many of Veil’s career moves), after the first European elections to be held on the basis of universal suffrage. Ever since, she has “embodied France’s involvement in the European Union”, according to Pascale Fréry, a historian with the French diplomatic service. She adds: “Veil actively committed herself to promoting and advancing the European project.

She also embodied a vision of the future. The election of a woman who was Jewish and a former deportee illustrates the innovative dimension of the European project for the defence of peace and the respect of minorities.” MacShane agrees: “She lifted European politics to a new level. Her intellect, grace and calm Europeanism turned the Strasbourg assembly into a serious body.”

In one of her early speeches in parliament, Veil said: “I am placing my hope in Europe, in a Europe that has overcome hatred and barbarism to commit itself to achieving peace and solidarity between the peoples of Europe.

Back in Paris, and after another short spell in government, Veil became the first woman to sit on the Conseil Constitutionnel, the body whose job is to ensure the fairness of French laws. A decade later, in 2008, she became only the sixth woman in history to be admitted to the Académie Française, joining the immortels and taking the seat originally occupied by Jean Racine.

In 2010, President Sarkozy changed the rules governing the Légion d’Honneur specifically to make it possible for him to give Veil the top honour (without her having to earn the lower grades first), in recognition of her exceptional contribution to politics, Europe and human rights. She has honorary doctorates from about 20 universities worldwide including Yale and Cambridge, and honours from the governments of the Ivory Coast, Spain, Morocco, Germany, Greece, Venezuela, Italy, Belgium, Israel and the United States.

“I still get the occasional abusive letter, not a lot,” Veil said in a recent interview. “In the street two or three times I’ve been attacked by obnoxious people. It’s not really important. I’m still surprised by people’s kindness – the number of women who stop me and say: thanks to you my life is better.”

Biography

  • 1927 Born Simone Annie Liline Jacob in Nice, daughter of a Jewish architect
  • 1944 Detained with her family at Auschwitz, then Bergen-Belsen, where her mother died shortly before Liberation. Her father and brother died while being deported to Lithuania
  • 1945 Studied at Sciences Po in Paris, where she met Antoine Veil. The couple married a year later and had three sons
  • 1974-1979 After a career as a magistrate, became health minister in governments of Chirac and Raymond Barre. Passed laws on contraception and abortion
  • 1979-1982 First woman president of the European parliament. She remained an MEP until 1993
  • 1998-2007 Sat on Conseil Constitutionnel
  • 2008 Entered Académie Française
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