Very few figures in French politics enjoy the support of people from all political spectrums. Yet this is certainly the case with Simone Veil, a woman with an unquestionable moral aura.
Former President of the European Parliament and former French Minister, Simone Veil currently serves as a member of France’s Constitutional Council, an institution principally tasked with ensuring the constitutionality of French law. First and foremost, Mrs. Veil is also one of France’s most beloved political figures, admired for her political and personal courage. At the age of 17, Simone Veil lived through the nightmarish experience of Auschwitz, where she lost part of her family, yet her life has since been driven by a single determination: the modernisation of post-war France. She promoted the improvement of detention conditions in France’s prisons, fought for the yes-vote on the law for the voluntary termination of pregnancy and has embodied France’s involvement in the European Union.
Simone Veil owes her popularity to her undeterred resolve, in particular when faced with the horror of the Nazi deportation camps. Simone Jacob was born in 1927 in Nice. Her father was an architect before the Vichy Regime banned him from exercising his profession in 1941, under the pretext that Jews could not account for more than 2% of the total workforce of a profession. With the exception of one of hers sisters who was working with the French Resistance, Simone Jacob’s entire family was deported in 1944. While she managed to survive the hell of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Simone lost her parents and brothers to the camps.
She did not however succumb to despair. Shortly after the Liberation and her return to Paris, Simone Jacob married Antoine Veil, with whom she had three children. She promptly decided to put her capacities for survival at the service of her country, which had momentarily failed to uphold its republican ideals. In 1950, Simon Veil agreed to follow her husband to Germany, where he had been posted, never blinking an eye when asked about the number tattooed on her arm. Upon her return to Paris, she decided to commit herself politically to her rapidly modernising country.
A magistrate by training, she fought her first battles within the National Penitentiary Administration, striving to improve detention conditions. She then contributed to the reform on the right to adopt, endeavouring to provide illegitimate children with the same rights as their counterparts. In 1974, she fought the hardest battle of her career when, as an attaché of the Ministry of Justice, she submitted a law authorizing the voluntary termination of pregnancy to the French National Assembly. Despite the attacks emanating from some of the deputies within her own party, she succeeded in having the law passed by forming an alliance with opposition deputies. At the time, the Veil Law was a notable advance in affirming a woman’s right to choose when to have a child. After leaving Raymond Barre’s administration, Simone Veil became, in 1979, President of the first popularly elected European Parliament and actively committed herself to promoting and advancing the European project.
Beyond her political commitment, Simone Veil’s career path is highly symbolic of the complexity of post-war French history. Indeed, upon returning from the deportation camps, Simone Veil was not drawn to exile in Israel and opted instead to toil for a country that had temporarily accepted to deport its own citizens based on their religion. In the words of Maurice Szafran, author of a book on Simone Veil, this remarkable woman seemed to be “inhabited by the absolute” and her personal courage served as an example for a country that needed to regain faith in itself.
Simone Veil also embodied a vision of the future when she became President of the European Parliament since, as she once said: “I am placing my hope in Europe, in a Europe that has overcome hatred and barbarism to commit itself to achieving peace and solidarity between the peoples of Europe”. The election of a woman who was Jewish and a former deportee illustrates the innovative dimension of the European project for the defence of peace and the respect minorities.
After many years spent fighting for the modernisation of post-war France, Simone Veil now presides over the Foundation for the Memory of Shoah. In 2005, she took part in commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Additionally, she provides multiple patronages (for example, to the medical students at the University of Nancy). These various activities have helped her achieve a harmonious balance between her respect for a heavy past and a forward-looking political commitment, providing further proof that Simone Veil has yet again taken up a new challenge: ensuring that the memory of the past and the duty to remember don’t hamper her faith in the future.