In France, Simone Veil was an ‘immortel’, the title given to the exclusive membership of the Academie Français made up of 40 individuals including former Presidents and Prime Ministers. In the moving induction ceremony she was handed a sword by Jacques Chirac, the former President of France. On the sword were three inscriptions that summarised her service: one was the motto of the French Republic ‘Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité’ in recognition of her service to the state; the second was the motto ‘Unie dans la diversité’, that of the European Union whose Parliament she had presided over; and finally was the number ‘78651’, the very number engraved on her at Auschwitz. These three engravings sum up an extraordinary life of someone who embodied the French Republican ideals of liberty and equality, the European ideal and the memory of the Shoah. Woven like a golden thread throughout her career was her commitment to justice and human rights.
Veil was from a Jewish family from Nice. She was deported with her sister and mother to Auschwitz in 1944 and later to Bergen-Belsen. She spent her life promoting the rights of others and later in life became the face and voice of the survivors and became increasingly involved in preserving the memory of the Shoah. Many in the Jewish community will remember her for the work she has done tirelessly to ensure that the lessons of the Shoah are not forgotten. In France, she is remembered for the work she did to promote human rights, equality and feminism.
Following the war, she qualified as a lawyer and went to work for the Ministry of Justice on improving the conditions for women in prison. However, it was as a politician that she became best known. She was the first woman to be a Minister in France and in 1975, as Minister of Health, Veil successfully introduced a law that would legalise abortion, three decades after Marie-Louise Giraud had become the last person to be executed for abortion. Her measure tried to balance the rights of the woman with the rights of the unborn child. Veil and her family were publicly attacked during the debate.
Her other firsts included becoming the first President of the democratically elected European Parliament. She later returned to Government as health minister in the 1990s before assuming the Presidency of the French Constitutional Court.
All that I met that knew her spoke highly of Simon Veil, in almost reverential terms. Sadly, I only met her once and still have a blurred photo of the immortel on my iPhone standing at the 30th anniversary of the attack on Copernic Synagogue for me will be everlasting souvenir. For her, it must have been a difficult moment as the then Prime Minister François Fillon apologised for the anti-Semitic statement at the time of attack made by the Prime Minister she had once served under that had implied that the Jews inside the synagogue were not completely innocent or were not French. It was watching her standing there next to Fillon that I understood why she consistently topped popularity polls in France. She had been to the depths of hell and from there she had walked proudly out of the ashes of Shoah to live a life committed to what she believed was right. She went that extra mile every time to do so. She could never be accused to take the easiest path and sometimes not the most popular. She did what she believed was right and carried it through with strength and determination. Veil was not the sort of person to bend to modern spin doctors or focus groups or change their mind for political convenience. She was stoic in her service to the European ideal, to feminism and to justice. She lived according to a strong set of ideals and values. That’s what made her popular.
In a country with strong sense of laïcité and republican values politicians do not often publicly talk about their origins and certainly not their faith. Veil was proudly French, European and Jewish. In the coming days many tomes will be written about her life, her impact as a politician, feminist, jurist, European, Holocaust survivor, as someone who changed her country and continent: for us she was someone that was the living embodiment of the values of our organisation that uses the Jewish experience to promote the rights of all.
Simon Veil died on 30th June 2017 aged 89.