Obituary: Simone Veil

Leading fighter for abortion and women’s rights in France


She was the woman most credited with advancing women’s rights in France, but Simone’s law, known in France as “la loie Veil” aroused vitriol when as Health Minister in November, 1974,  she advocated legalising abortion. This, in Catholic France, proposed by a Jewish woman who had survived Auschwitz, infuriated campaigners, women among them, who paraded and leafleted outside the French National Assembly.

 Inside the chamber, epithets were hurled at her, with critics comparing abortion to Nazi euthanasia, Swastikas were daubed on her car and inside her building. But in a chamber containing just nine women and 481 men, the three day debate is remembered for Veil's calm, measured opening speech as much as for the hostility of her opponents.

But Simone Veil, who has died aged 89, told fellow MPs she was convinced abortion should stay an exception, the last resort for desperate situations. “No woman”, she added, “resorts to abortion light-heartedly.”

Abortion had been criminalized in France since the Napoleonic era. The measure, which passed into law on Nov. 29, 1974, by a vote of 284 to 189, was  won with the help of the Opposition. It lacked the support of the Prime Minister Jacques Chirac or the Justice Minister,. President Giscard d’Estaing, who had chosen her to enter government over  her civil servant husband Antoine, could not muster the necessary support.

Veil’s humanist credentials were already well established. As a magistrate she had advised Justice Ministers including Francois Mitterand, and safely brought to France a young woman, Djamila Boujhired, who had been tortured in an Algerian prison. And as a lawyer, she had risen to the high echelons of public life, while drafting legislation to expand the rights of prison inmates, as well as the disadvantaged in society. In 2008, she became one of few politicians to be elected to the Académie Française, the 40-member authority on the French language.

But for a woman who had lost family in the Holocaust and who had narrowly survived death herself, the abortion bill which pitched her as the person most responsible for advancing women’s legal rights, now had to face vicious verbal attacks from all quarters. She said that she found strength by reflecting on memories of her mother, who had died 60 years earlier in  Bergen-Belsen.

Adoption had been another cause. As the first female secretary general of the Council of the Magistrature she produced a book in 1969, which examined the social, medical and psychological effects of adoption. She also led the reform of the medical studies syllabus, campaigned unsuccessfully against smoking and fought to make hospitals more humane. Her intense dedication was matched with a touch of exactitude and impatience.

Born in Nice, the daughter of Yvonne nee Steinmetz, who had received a science baccalaureate, and Andre Jacob, and architect. she had three siblings, Milou, Denise and Jean. Although the family were not observant, Jewish awareness became an issue when Andre was banned from practising, and she feared that completing her baccalaureate in 1944  at the local lycee, under her real name, led to the arrest of the whole family. She and her mother and Milou were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Bergen-Belsen where her mother died of typhus. The two girls were liberated on January 27, 1945. But Denise, who had joined the Resistance, was deported to Ravensbruck as a Resistant, not a Jew. She was liberated and reached Paris on May 1, 1945.

But there was no news about the fate of their father and brother Jean who had been sent to Estonia. This was particularly poignant since Andre, like many Jews of his generation, fought in the First World War and remained a committed patriot, unable to believe the French could deport Jews.

After the war, Simone won a diploma in law and political science Sciences Po, the elite school of political science in Paris, where she met her husband Antoine Veil, and became a magistrate in 1954.  Two years later she married ‘Antoine Veil, a significant figure in the aeronautical industry and a civil servant. They had three sons, Jean, Nicolas and Pierre-Francois. But she remained haunted by the images, the odours, the cries of war.  At a reception given in 1950 in Mainz by the French consulate, an insensitive French diplomat thought the Nazi tattoo on her arm was her cloakroom number.

But another blow came with Milou’s sudden death in a car accident in 1952. Her sister had been her main confidante and supporter during difficult times. In 1979 Veil left the health ministry to run in the first direct-suffrage European parliamentary elections and became the first woman president of the European Parliament. Unable to understand how one European country could make war on another, she became a staunch European, favouring a political and not just economic union.  The significance of a Holocaust survivor presiding over the European Parliament was not lost on her and she was disturbed by the emergence of the Far Right Front National, and the occasional quivers of support by local Gaullists. As minister for social affairs in Edouard  Balladur’s government between 1993-5, she  had a role in giving financial help to women who wanted to stay home and look after their children. In 1998 she was appointed to the Constitutional Council of France.

Both she and her husband continued to influence political thought, even outside office. She was made an honorary dame in 1998.  At the 2005 screening of a documentary on her life at the International Women’s Film Festival in Creteil, she addressed the audience on the future for women’s rights in France, acknowledging  the courage and influence of her mother.Her memoir Une Vie, was published in 2007, and In 2008 she was elected to the Academie Francaise, She was awarded the Grand Cross of the Leion d’Honeur in 2012.

She is survived by her sons Jean and Pierre-Francois. Claude-Nicolas died in 2002 and Antoine pre-deceased her in 2013.

Simone Veil: born July 13, 1927. Died June 30, 2017.

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