Few Americans probably know the name Simone Veil. But ask almost any French woman about the 89-year-old who died today and she’ll tell you that maybe no modern woman in France is more revered. She is considered the very emblem of courage.
A feminist icon and Holocaust survivor who spent a year in Nazi death camps, Simone Veil championed the rights of women and forever altered French society. Most of what you probably imagine when you think about their status in France was at least in some way influenced by Simone Veil.
Veil was the author of the 1974 French law legalizing abortion — it is literally called “Veil’s Law. “She was a champion for not only the right of women to control their pregnancies, but also to control their fertility. She long advocated for universal accessibility to contraception.
Trained as a lawyer, she became a judge renowned for her concern for human rights, particularly the rights of prisoners. As a parliamentarian and a health minister, she battled for the rights of women. She then served as the first president of the European parliament. And, in the last decades of her life, she emerged as a tireless lecturer and advocate for the preservation of Holocaust memory.
And none of it came easy.
Veil is perhaps best known as the architect of legalized abortion in France
In her iconic 1974 speech before parliament right before a vote on legalizing abortion, Veil spoke passionately on why the right to terminate a pregnancy must be awarded to all girls. “I apologize for doing it before this assembly comprised almost exclusively of men,” she said that day, underscoring using a single phrase exactly why her presence was so crucial. She added, “No woman resorts to abortion lightheartedly.”
It was a battle that earned her the vitriol of the extreme right, who accused her of wanting to murder babies like the Nazis murdered their victims. A fellow parliamentarian maintained her law would “each year kill twice as many people as the Hiroshima bomb” Another said the law was “genocide.”
For several years, Veil was the constant target of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front party. She refused to stand down. In this archival footage from 1979, a brawl broke out when National Front supporters attempted to disrupt a meeting she had been speaking at in Paris. Veil can be heard shouting, “Vous ne me faites pas peur! J’ai survécu a pire que vous!” –“You do not frighten me! I have survived worse than you !”
“She is revered, but she was also hated. She was under attack by the right and extreme right,” explains Jean-Marc Dreyfus, a professor of Holocaust Studies at the University of Manchester. Dreyfus describes the verbal assaults Veil weathered and her reputation for tireless advocacy. She was a staunch opponent of the National Front, he says, from its creation until the end of her life.
“She was known first as a magistrate and an advocate for human rights,” Dreyfus continues. “She advocated for the rights of prisoners. She wanted the living conditions in French prisons to be improved. She would stop to see prisons as she left on holiday — she’d leave her loved ones and say ‘I am just visiting a prison to see if it is okay. ”’
Dreyfus notes she didn’t, at least initially, freely associate her wartime experiences with her work. But when she ran for the European parliament in the early 1980s, she began to clearly, vocally associate her desire to build a united Europe with the horrors of the Holocaust.
Her past was never very far behind her
Simone Veil has been born Simone Jacob in 1927 from the Mediterranean city of Nice to a middle-class, assimilated — in other words, non-religious — Jewish family. However, the Nazis cared about Jewish blood, not spiritual identity.
In the spring of 1944, at age 16, Simone and her family had been rounded up. First she and two of her sisters were shot, on March 30, then her father and brother and eventually a third sister — the last was also a resistance fighter. All were deported to Eastern Europe.
Veil was sent by shut cattle car to the Auschwitz extermination camp in Poland. There she received the indelible number 78651 tattooed on her arm — the Nazis tattooed the inmates, taking away their identities and rendering them simply numbers.
“From then on, each of us was just a number, seared into our flesh,” she wrote later in her life. “A number we needed to learn by heart, since we’d lost all identity”
Veil, her mother Yvonne, and her sister Madeleine were together in Auschwitz. When the Nazis dismantled the camp in January 1945, the three were forcibly marched for days only to be incarcerated again in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Madeleine and Simone survived Bergen-Belsen; Veil’s mother did not. Veil’s other sister Denise, held with other resistance fighters, survived theRavensbrück concentration camp.
Her father and brother were never heard from again.
Veil and her sister were liberated in April of 1945 and Veil returned to France. After the war, she attended the prestigious French Faculty Sciences Po and studied law. She met and married a fellow student named Antoine Veil who later went into business. They also had three sons.
Veil’s wartime experience propelled her European parliamentary career
Simone Veil didn’t discuss her Holocaust experience much in the first years of her life. But by the end of the 1970s, she started drawing a clear line between the horrors she had observed and been a victim of and the demand for a peaceful, unified Europe.
She set out to work for the European Economic Community — which later became the European Union. She became the first president of the European parliament. In her first speech before that body, in 1979, she nodded to the past that had destroyed her loved ones and nearly destroyed Europe.
“[T]his is the first time in history, a history in which we have so frequently been divided, pitted one against the other, bent on mutual destruction,”she said, ” that the people of Europe have elected their delegates to a common assembly representing, in this Chamber today, more than 260 million people.”
Veil would function as president of the European parliament until 1982, and a general member of the body until 1993. She then reprised her role as French Health Minister in the early 1990s. Later she held a variety of other positions including integrating immigrants, on the High Council for Integration, and did a nine-year tour as a member of the Constitutional Council, the highest court in France tasked with reviewing the constitutionality of laws. At the turn of the century she turned in earnest to the job of Holocaust memorialization, serving on the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah (Holocaust) for seven decades.
This morning, as the news of her passing broke, French President Emmanuel Macron compensated tribute to her in a statement. “Her uncompromising humanism, wrought from the horror of the camps, made her the constant ally of the poorest, and the resolute enemy of any political compromise with the extreme right,” he said.
Macron also tweeted his condolences at hearing the news.
Très vives condoléances à la famille de Simone Veil. Puisse son exemple inspirer nos compatriotes, qui y trouveront le meilleur de la France
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) June 30, 2017
The tweet reads: “Enormous condolences to the family of Simone Veil. May her example inspire our countrymen, who will see in her the very best of France.”
Other tributes poured in all day.
Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the head of the American Jewish Committee in Paris, tweeted early this morning: “Immense sadness at the announcement of the Passing of Simon Veil, a model of courage for Girls, for Dedication to France, and to Europe.”
Tristesse immense à l’annonce du décès de Simone Veil, un modèle de courage pour les femmes, pour l’engagement pour la France et l’Europe. pic.twitter.com/R2rxEp2ut7
— Simone Rodan-Benzaqu (@srodan) June 30, 2017