Simone Veil, Holocaust survivor, politician and women's rights champion, dies

‘One of the leading female politicians of her generation’ was driver behind legalisation of abortion in France


Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor who later became the French Minister for Health and was instrumental in the country’s legalisation of abortion, has died aged 89.

Madame Veil was born Simone Jacob, to a Jewish family in Nice. In March 1944, at the age of 16, she was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and later transferred to Bergen-Belsen.

After the war she returned to France. She became a lawyer and then a magistrate, before working in a number of roles in the Ministry of Justice. She was subsequently appointed Minister for Health, a role which she held for five years. During her tenure she was responsible for easing access to contraception, and – in her most famous political fight – legalising abortion in France.

During her struggle to allow women the ability to request an abortion, Mme Veil was subjected to antisemitic attacks. Swastikas were painted on her car and in the lift in her apartment building. At one point, a deputy in the French Parliament asked her if she would agree to the idea of throwing embryos into crematorium ovens. Nevertheless, she persisted – and the Loi Veil, as it became known, is considered a critical step in advancing women’s rights in France.

After leaving the Ministry of Health, Mme Veil became a Member of the European Parliament. She was almost immediately elected President of the Parliament, the first woman to hold this position. She served in the European Parliament for 14 years, standing down in 1993.

As a Holocaust survivor, Mme Veil served as President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah. She received the French Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite, as well as an OBE.

In response to the news of her death, Emmanuel Macron, the French President, tweeted: “May her example inspire our fellow citizens as the best of what France can achieve.” The Prime Minister, Édouard Philippe, tweeted that “France has lost a figure the likes of which history produces few”.

Karen Pollock, the Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said Mme Veil was “an inspiration.

“Having survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, she became one of the leading female politicians of her generation”, she said.

“She dedicated her life to advocating for those most in need... she was a determined advocate for Holocaust awareness, playing an integral role in the establishment of the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris where she was Honorary President.

“The incredible things she achieved during her lifetime - against all odds - will be her legacy. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.”

Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress, said: “We have sadly lost a great moral voice, a champion of Jewish rights, combating antisemitism and ensuring the Holocaust and its lessons were properly memorialized and a pioneer for the rights of women and an advocate for European progress.

“Simone Veil will be missed, not just by the French people, but by European Jewry and people around the world.”

Mme Veil’s mother, father and brother died during the Holocaust, with her sister dying in a car accident in the 1950s. She married Antoine Veil in 1946, a marriage which lasted 66 years until his death in 2013. She is survived by her three sons, Jean, Nicolas, and Pierre Francois.

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