«Puisse son exemple inspirer longtemps nos compatriotes, qui y trouveront le meilleur de la France» – Emmanuel Macron . “ May her example inspire our fellow citizens, as the best of what France can achieve” – Emmanuel Macron.
Nice-born political icon and Auschwitz survivor, Simone Veil, most definitely represented “the best of France” throughout her life.
Very few politicians can command support and admiration across the political spectrum. This, however, was the case with Simone Veil, France’s universally loved and respected former health minister who has just passed away at age 89.
Expressing his condolences, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “May her example inspire our fellow citizens, as the best of what France can achieve”, while his predecessor Francois Hollande said she “embodied dignity, courage and moral rectitude.”
Veil’s life and political career were admirable in many ways. In her autobiography, A Life, which was released in France in 2008 and the following year in the UK, she recounted all aspects of this extraordinary destiny that saw her successively become a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, a mother of three boys, a health minister, an abortion pioneer, the first president of the directly elected European Parliament, and a member of France’s Constitutional Council, before being enthroned in 2010 as one of the French immortals, becoming only the sixth woman in 375 years to join the Académie Française (the French Academy).
Veil’s nomination to the prestigious French Academy which is the organization that regulates the French language and whose members are nicknamed “eternals” after the inscription on the seal of the academy “to immortality”, was a beautiful conclusion to a remarkable life.
Born Simone Jacob in Nice, she was arrested in the streets of her hometown on 29th March 1944, the day after taking her baccalaureat examinations and nearly two months before D-Day, and was sent to Auschwitz with most of her family. She and a sister survived, but her father, mother and brother never came back from the death camps.
Upon her return to France, Veil married another secular French Jew, Antoine Veil, a diplomat, civil servant and senior aviation executive, and went on to become a judge. In 1974, she became Minister for Health (1974 – 1979) under President Giscard d’Estaing, where she successively fought to legalize abortion.
She later served as the first President of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1982 before returning to domestic government as Minister for Social Affairs, in Jacques Chirac’s government from 1993 to 1995. Three years later, Simone Veil was appointed to the Constitutional Council, an institution principally tasked with ensuring the constitutionality of French law. She also presided over the Foundation for the Memory of Shoah and provided multiple patronages all throughout the country.
No less than three French presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, all political allies, attended her induction ceremony to the Académie Française, which was broadcast live on French television.
Wearing a green uniform designed by Karl Lagerfeld and a sword engraved with her Auschwitz camp number, 78651, which was still tattooed on her wrist, Weil declared in her inaugural speech: ” I think of my mother every day, two-thirds of a century after she died in the hell of the Bergen-Belsen camp,” (…) “And it is also my father, who was deported and died in the Baltic countries, who is with me here.”