The French are rarely unanimous in their opinions about anything. However, late last month, the French news media reported the nearly unanimous outpouring of tributes at the passing, June 30, of one of its most prominent political personalities — a Jewish woman who survived deportation to Auschwitz.
Simone Veil, who was 89, became a kind of icon in France over the course of an extraordinary career that covered more than four decades. Just a few years ago, polls indicated that she was the most admired political personality in France.
How did someone of her background achieve this uncommon status? Two aspects of Veil’s long and productive life seem to have been the most compelling factors.
Born and raised in Nice, on the Riviera, of an Ashkenazi mother and a father descended from Sephardim, Veil, then Simone Jacob, was arrested by the Gestapo the day after she had taken her high school baccalaureate exam in May 1944. Together with her entire family, she was sent by train to the detention camp at Drancy and from there she was sent to Auschwitz, where she spent some seven months. Her parents and brother died in the camps. Veil and her sisters survived, but only after experiencing the horrors of the camps. The experience left her with a deep desire to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and imparted to her a character of steel.
Upon her return to France, she chose to attend law school, to become a magistrate and then to pursue a career in public service. In 1946, she married Antoine Veil, who also pursued a career in public service. During the course of her career, Simone Veil came to the attention of Jacques Chirac, who would eventually become prime minister under the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. Chirac named Veil as his minister of health.
As head of the Ministry of Health it fell to Veil to spearhead the effort to pass a law legalizing abortions. In a Catholic nation, where the church still wielded a great deal of power and influence, the battle over abortion rights turned out to be an extremely difficult and very public one. Facing a National Assembly that had only six women members out of 473, over the course of three days of highly publicized debates, Veil unflinchingly fought for the right of women to have abortions. She prevailed and to this day, the law permitting abortions bears her name: the Loi Veil.
To women throughout France, even those opposed to abortions, her battle for abortion rights remains an unparalleled example of unflinching courage, a quality that seemed rare in France’s political establishment, especially with respect to women’s rights. As a result, for an entire generation Veil stood out as a woman of strength and integrity who had been instrumental in fundamentally supporting women’s rights.
After her success on the French political scene, she chose to turn her attention to European politics. When the European Parliament was established, she ran for a seat in that body. It was her view that creating a united Europe was potentially the only means of avoiding a repeat of the violence of the 20th century and the horrors that it had inflicted on Jews, France and the entire world. As Veil put it, her work in uniting Europe was her personal means of “reconciling with the 20th century.”
Signaling their deep respect, her fellow European legislators then elected her as
the first president of the European Parliament. She carried out her duties with dignity and skill. Subsequently, she yet again served as a minister in the French government and became a member of the French Constitutional Council, a kind of French Supreme Court.
In 2008, the French Academy, the institution to which the most venerated and brilliant French intellectuals are admitted, elected her to membership. Only the sixth woman so selected, she thereby joined the ranks of the “immortals,” as the members of the Academy are often labeled.
Throughout her brilliant career, Veil never made a secret of her Jewishness or of the horrible ordeal she had been through during the Holocaust. Quite the contrary. She devoted herself to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and to genocide prevention. A frequent guest on French television, she would regularly speak of the horrors of Auschwitz and of her personal experiences there. As a result, she was a symbol of Jewish survival. As Segolène Royal, a one-time presidential candidate elegantly put it, she was a “heroine of history.”
Her death has prompted an outpouring of respectful commentary from all segments of French life. She has drawn praise from every part of the French political spectrum. Upon the news of her death, Emmanuel Macron, the new president, speaking for all of France, said, “May the example of Simone Veil inspire our compatriots, who will find in her the best that France has to offer.”
Macron decided that Veil was to be buried in the Panthéon, the Paris mausoleum in which France’s greatest personalities are interred. This means that a tomb bearing the Star of David will be located near the tombs of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Louis Pasteur and countless other heroes of French history. It will be a suitable tribute to a woman who incarnated the best of her Jewish and French heritages and whose exemplary life has served as a model to an entire generation. It will also serve as a powerful reminder of the important contribution of Jews to the life of France, as well as to the heavy price that Jews have had to pay in the process of making that contribution.
Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington law firm of Arent Fox LLP.