Review: A Life

A survivor who won’t fall for simplicity


By Natasha Lehrer, April 7, 2009
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The young, remarkable, Veil

The young, remarkable, Veil

By Simone Veil
Haus, £16.99

Considering the life that Simone Veil has had, she could have written an autobiography twice as long as her allusive and fascinating memoir A Life, newly published in English translation.

Born Simone Jacob in 1927, Veil was deported as a teenager, via the French transit camp at Drancy, to Auschwitz, with one of her sisters and her mother. She and her sister survived; her mother did not. (One other sister survived deportation, her father and brother also did not.) A remarkable, resilient personality, she returned to France after the Liberation in 1945 and married the supportive, if old-fashioned, Antoine Veil, with whom she had three sons.

Her desire to work ran counter to French post-war culture, which, in spite of feminists like de Beauvoir, retained an old-fashioned, Catholic suspicion of women in positions of any kind of influence. Nonetheless, her training as a judge led to her being appointed to head important government commissions (investigating the prison service and mental health provision) and then to her appointment by President Giscard d’Estaing as Minister of Health. Not only was she the first elected President of the European Parliament, but she was the first female President of that body.

Later she was appointed President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah and, finally, before she retired, she was a member of the Conseil Constitutionel, France’s highest constitutional authority.

Veil is probably best-known in France for having guided into being the 1975 law legalising abortion (particularly significant when one considers that the ruling class was still avowedly Catholic and in many regards extremely conservative). Thirty years later, this monumental achievement remains controversial in some circles; she was heavily criticised by the head of the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada who, shamefully, in a letter to the Polish President in 2005 opposing her presence at the 60th anniversary commemorations of the liberation of Auschwitz, said that Veil “was to be held responsible for a mass murder of human life far exceeding” that of the Nazis.

Veil’s memoir has been described as “a compact history of post-war France”, and it is certainly briskly narrated. I would have preferred her to linger a little more over some of the landmark events, in order to enjoy in more detail her wry and, as she herself puts it, politically incorrect version of events.

As a Jew, a survivor of Auschwitz, a woman, a citizen of France and of Europe who has held high political position over an extensive period, she is a fascinating amalgam of different viewpoints and in some senses something of a paradox. She is, for example, a virulently anti-Socialist feminist. She lost some fans when she backed Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 Presidential elections, particularly among the young, but I doubt that this cost this fearsome iconoclast any sleep at night, and it was in any case only a matter of time before she publicly criticised the new President for his stand on the teaching of the Holocaust in primary schools.

A Life is replete with pithy portraits of celebrated figures, from de Gaulle (whom she detested) through to Chirac (whom she respects, in spite of political differences) via less well-known figures who irritated her fierce and uncompromising intelligence and about whose misguided words and deeds she is clearly glad of the opportunity to set the record straight (she is especially scathing of former Prime Minister Raymond Barre’s habit of dropping antisemitic clangers).

She tells of a bucolic childhood in Nice that ended violently with the Occupation and deportation, of living in the Latin Quarter during the May 1968 uprisings, of the wasteful policies enacted in Brussels and Strasbourg by the European Parliament.

Of the arrogance of the French political classes, she says: “The French, unfortunately… cannot understand that it is useless to deplore their country’s loss of influence [abroad] if they sit at home with their arms folded.” But she has always, in the end “felt so French” and cares deeply about this complex, contradictory country whose interests she has served for all of her adult life.

Natasha Lehrer is a writer living in France

    Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011