French women's rights champion Simone Veil dies aged 89, eulogised as ‘best of France’

Former french minister Simone Veil, known for legalising abortion in France, has died on June 30, 2017.
Former french minister Simone Veil, known for legalising abortion in France, has died on June 30, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

PARIS (AFP) - Simone Veil, the Auschwitz survivor who became a towering figure in French politics after legalising abortion despite fierce opposition, was hailed as “the best of France” Friday following her death at 89.  

Veil, a women’s rights icon who served as the first president of the European Parliament, died at her home, her son Jean Veil said.  

Expressing his condolences, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “May her example inspire our fellow citizens, as the best of what France can achieve.” Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande said she “embodied dignity, courage and moral rectitude.”

“France has lost a figure the likes of which history produces few,” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe tweeted.  

Veil – a model of composure who always wore her hair in a sleek bun and dressed in Chanel suits – was seen as something of a secular saint for her unwavering stance on moral issues.  Her standout achievement as a politician was shepherding a 1974 abortion law through parliament after a 25-hour debate during which she endured a torrent of abuse, with some lawmakers likening terminations to the Holocaust.  

“I never imagined the hatred that I would unleash,” the former health minister said later.  “There was such hypocrisy,” she said.

“The assembly was mainly filled with men, some of whom were secretly looking for contacts to arrange an abortion for mistress or a member of their family.” 

Born Simone Jacob in the Mediterranean city of Nice, she was deported to the Nazi death camp at the age of 17 with her entire family.  Her father and brother were last seen on a train to Lithuania and her mother, Yvonne, died in Belsen just before that camp was liberated in 1945.  

She and her two sisters, one of whom later died in a car crash, were among only 11 survivors of 400 Jewish children deported from her region.

“Sixty years later I am still haunted by the images, the odours, the cries, the humiliation, the blows and the sky filled with the smoke of the crematoriums,” Veil said in a TV interview broadcast in 2005.

After the war, she studied law at Sciences Po, the elite school of political science in Paris, where she met and married Antoine Veil, who died in April 2013. The couple had three sons, one of whom, Claude-Nicolas, died.  

Her first job, in 1956, was as a judge – she focused on improving the lot of convicts – and, in 1970, she became the first female general secretary of the Council of Magistrates.  

Years that changed France

It was the springboard for a political career that fundamentally changed France.  In 1971, feminists began a campaign to overturn France’s ban on abortion, attacking the stigma of pregnancy termination and women’s deaths in backstreet operations.  

Veil threw herself into the battle, setting up Choisir (Choose), an organisation to defend women who were prosecuted for abortion.  A member of the centre-right Union for French Democracy, she was named health minister under president Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

In 1973, she pushed through laws to liberalise contraception, with the pill not only authorised, but reimbursed by France’s social security system, and doctors could give it to minors anonymously.  

A year later came an even bigger combat: the legalisation of abortion.  Veil led the charge in the National Assembly, where she braved a volley of insults, some of them likening terminations to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews.  

In a chamber where there were just nine women and 481 men, the 25-hour debate is remembered for Veil’s calm, measured opening speech as much as the hostility of some of her opponents.  One lawmaker accused Veil of  “genocide” and another spoke of embryos “thrown into the crematorium ovens”.  

The legislation – named the “Loi Veil” (Veil Law) – is today considered a cornerstone of women’s rights and secularism in France.  

A staunch pro-European, Veil was elected to the European Parliament in 1979, becoming the first president of the assembly.  After a second term as health minister under Socialist president Francois Mitterrand, Veil last held major public office between 1998 and 2007, when she was a member of France’s Constitutional Council.  

Trusted figure

With her charisma, and widely recognised for her hair in a bun and her Chanel suits, she was consistently voted one of France’s most trusted public figures.

Her memoir “A Life” became a best seller, with more than half a million copies sold.  She was also frequently associated with commemorations of World War II.  During one event in her home city in October 2007, she recalled how one of her schoolmates had told her, before the German occupation of France, that “Your mother will go to hell because she’s Jewish.”

Her youthful experiences left her with no tolerance for the far-right National Front, and in 1983 she condemned fellow conservative politicians for seeking electoral arrangements with the anti-immigration party.  

Among other posts she served from 2000 to 2007 as president of the French Foundation for preserving the memory of the Shoah, or Holocaust.  In the early 1990s she was a member of a delegation which investigated detention camps during the war in the former Yugoslavia.  She was also recognised abroad – in 1998, she became an honorary Dame of the British Empire (DBE).  

In March 2010, Veil joined the Academie Francaise, the elite intellectual guardians of the French language, becoming only the sixth woman to join the “immortals”, as the 40 members of the academy are known.  

Each “immortal” is given a ceremonial sword. Veil’s was engraved with the three things that had imprinted her life.  They were the mottoes of the French Republic and the European Union – and the number 78651, which was tattooed on her arm at Auschwitz.