Simone Veil: Holocaust survivor who rose to become an icon of French politics
Simone Veil was a survivor of the Holocaust, an abortion pioneer, a French politician, the first female president of the European Parliament, and a champion of women’s rights.
Simone Veil was born on July 13, 1927, in Nice, France, into a Jewish family. She was the youngest of the four children of André and Yvonne Steinmetz.
Veil attended high school in Nice and completed her final examination on March 28, 1944. Two days later, she was arrested by the Germans. She gave touching descriptions of the events that led to her arrest in several interviews and in the book Dawn at Birkenau.
After the arrest, Yvonne, along with her daughters Madeleine and Veil, were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Bergen-Belsen. Only Madeleine and Simone survived the concentration camps. They were liberated on January 27, 1945.
Veil was greatly influenced by her mother. In various interviews, she talked about the agony and humiliation they faced during the Holocaust, and the courage shown by her mother. Throughout her life, Veil echoed her grief over her mother’s absence. Her mother passed away due to typhus in Bergen-Belsen.
Veil returned to France after World War II and started studying law at the University of Paris. After completing law studies, she went to Institut d'études politiques to study political science where she met Antoine Veil. The couple got married in 1946 and had three sons. In 1952, Veil was struck with another tragedy as her sister Madeleine died in an accident. She lost the person who understood and supported her the most.
In 1956, Simone Veil passed the extremely competitive national magistrate examination. She became a Magistrate in the French Ministry of Justice in the same year. She specialised in human rights and focussed on the rights of women and prisoners, including the Algerians detained during the war of independence.
In 1964, Simone Veil was appointed Director of Civil Affairs. During her stint, she ensured the right to dual parental control of family legal matters and adoptive rights for women. In 1973, she started to push through laws to liberalise contraception in France. The pill was not only authorised but also reimbursed through the social security system.
Simone Veil had to face severe criticism for trying to pass abortion law.
At the age of 46, Veil became Health Minister. She became the second women in the history of France to hold full cabinet rank. As minister, she wanted to legalise abortion. She delivered a speech in the National Assembly, occupied mostly by conservative Catholic men, in which she passionately defended women’s rights to safe and legal abortion.
Simone Veil had to face severe criticism for trying to pass abortion law. Many of the insults were aimed personally at her and her family. She had to face aggression from members of the parliament to the anonymous letters that reached her house and office. The right-wing French politics argued that abortion was similar to Nazi euthanasia. However, she was successful in passing the law in November 1974, and it came to effect in January 1975.
The Veil Law is considered as a landmark piece of legislation in the history of France. Apart from the abortion law, she worked to improve the lives of women through extensive health care, child care and maternity programmes. She also held several high positions during her lifetime.
Simone Veil passed away on June 30, 2017, at the age of 89 and was buried at the Montparnasse cemetery. Upon her death, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced that she would be buried in the Pantheon. The Pantheon is a famous mausoleum in Paris, which houses France’s most adored cultural and historical figures.
On July 1, 2018, the mortal remains of Simone Veil was transferred to the Pantheon where she joined such greats as Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Emile Zola.