One of the few French postwar politicians to earn near unanimous respect, Simone Veil, has died aged 89.
Deported from France by the Nazis aged 16, she survived Birkenau, although her mother and sister perished.
On her return to France she embarked upon a career in the law, becoming a magistrate, and in 1956 became the Director of French prisons. Marking a break with her predecessors, she visited many such institutions
personally and railed at the primitive, “medieval” conditions she found there. She took a special interest in the plight of female detainees, and political prisoners, notably Algerians who had resisted French rule there.
In 1962 she became Minister of Civil Affairs, and took a principled stand on adoptions, becoming a pioneer of the idea that a childs’ rights should come first, an idea later amplified by Francoise Dolto in her landmark book “The baby is a person”.
This was her first experience of the brutality of parliamentary debate, and the ingrained sexism of the legislature.
Thirteen years later came the key moment in her political career when she forced through, in the teeth of furious opposition from within her own party, the law allowing abortion for the first time in France. The year before she had legalised contraception. Both initiatives earned her vilification, with her actions being compared to the Nazis, and her home and husband’s car were defaced with swastikas. She became a hate figure for the ultra-Catholic far right, which never forgave her.
At a political rally in Paris in 1979 a large contingent of Front National militants led by the then-leader Jean-Marie Le Pen attempted to shout Veil down and attacked her supporters. “I’m not afraid of you, I’ve survived much worse,” she shouted back, “You are just plastic SS!”
President Giscard d’Estaing chose his Health Minister to lead the centre-right’s list for the 1979 European elections, and this led to her becoming the President of the European Parliament. She sat in the assembly until 1993,
when she returned to government in France as Prime Minister Eduard Balladur’s Social Affairs Minister.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker was fulsome in praise for Veil on news of her death. “Her very flesh and bone lived through Europe’s most traumatic events, and her political commitment contributed to the construction of a lasting peace in Europe. She fought tirelessly for the most noble of causes.”
A fervent European, in 1998 she become a member of France’s Constitutional Court, a position she held until 2007.
In 2010 Veil received the supreme accolade that can be awarded to a French public figure, being elected to the Academie Francaise, and took seat 13, previously held by the brilliant but anti-semitic writer Racine. The ceremonial sword she was presented with bore the same number the Nazis had tattooed on her arm.
Veil may have been a politician of the right, but won bipartisan approval for her actions, as demonstrated by this tweet from a Labour councillor in Britain. Her reputation also crossed borders.