Wednesday 26 September 2018

Simone Veil's place in pantheon of European greats is secured

Simone Veil, with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, is named Grand Officier of the Légion d’Honneur in 2009. This week, she became only the fifth woman to be buried in the Panthéon in Paris. There are 72 men. Photo: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters
Simone Veil, with former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, is named Grand Officier of the Légion d’Honneur in 2009. This week, she became only the fifth woman to be buried in the Panthéon in Paris. There are 72 men. Photo: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

There are few others whose life story better captures what it is to be European than Simone Veil, the French Holocaust survivor and women's rights champion who was interred this week in the Panthéon in Paris, becoming only the fifth woman ever to be buried there.

"France loves Simone Veil and loves her for her struggles," French President Emmanuel Macron said during a ceremony last Sunday at the imposing monument where the words 'The nation thanks its great men' are inscribed over the door.

He continued: "We wanted Simone Veil to enter the Panthéon without waiting for generations to pass so that her battles, her dignity and her hope remain a compass in these troubled times."

Veil's battles began as a teenager in Nazi-occupied France. At 16 - the day after she sat her baccalaureate exam - she was sent to Auschwitz with her mother and sister.

Both her parents and her brother perished in the concentration camps. Veil's camp number - 78651 - was forever tattooed on her left arm. On Sunday giant screens displayed that number as her cortège wound its way through the streets of the French capital. Macron described it as a symbol of Veil's "untouchable dignity".

What she had endured and survived during the Holocaust gave Veil a steely drive and an unstinting empathy for the vulnerable.

"Her uncompromising humanism, wrought by the horror of the camps, made her the constant ally of the weakest, and the resolute enemy of any political compromise with the extreme right," Macron's office said in a statement when Veil passed away in June last year, two weeks before her 90th birthday.

That determination forged in war led her to several firsts. Trained as a lawyer, she later became France's first female cabinet minister.

As health minister, she successfully pushed for the legalisation of abortion in 1975, with the bill still referred to by many as the "Veil law".

The legislation had a stormy passage and Veil faced misogynistic and anti-Semitic attacks from opponents. "You don't scare me - I've survived worse than you!" she told baying members of the National Assembly, one of whom compared the proposed abortion law to Nazi actions.

"No woman undergoes an abortion light-heartedly," Veil countered. "It's a tragedy and will always remain a tragedy."

Four years later Veil became the first woman president of the European Parliament.

Her experience of the Holocaust made her not just a committed European but a passionate advocate for a European Union that went beyond just the economic, underpinned by reconciliation after the horrors of war.

Her July 1979 inauguration as Parliament president was shot through with emotion and MEPs gave her a standing ovation.

She told them: "All [the EU] member states are faced with three great challenges: the challenge of peace, the challenge of freedom and the challenge of prosperity, and it seems clear they can only be met through the European dimension."

In the months since Veil's death last year, the area around the European Parliament building in Brussels has been decked with images of Veil through her career.

But if Veil was admired in Brussels, she was loved in France.

Even as she retired from public life, polls frequently showed she was among the most popular figures for the French. The posthumous tributes to Veil have spanned France's generations and its political and social divides.

She is remembered not just for her role in legalising abortion but drafting legislation to improve the rights of prisoners, people with disabilities and disadvantaged children, as well as policies aimed at countering discrimination.

After Veil passed away, thousands signed petitions requesting that Macron arrange for her remains be placed in the Panthéon, where 72 men - including writers Victor Hugo and Émile Zola and philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau - and only four women, among them the scientist Marie Curie, are interred.

In Paris, a metro station and a square have been renamed after her. Veil's portrait adorns many of the French capital's streets thanks to a campaign called 'Merci Simone' created by a collective of street artists.

For some, Veil's passing marked the end of an era in more ways than one. Proud Europeans like her, with a lived memory of World War II and the ashes from which the EU emerged, were a vital link to a past that helped explain the present.

With the whole concept of the European Union under pressure like never before in the bloc's history, stories like Veil's should not be forgotten.

As Macron put it this week: "May your fights keep running in our veins."

Irish Independent

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