Simone Veil - French Magistrate and Politician

Simone Veil - French Magistrate and Politician

Simone Veil, born Jacob, was a French magistrate and politician. She was Minister of Health, and President of the European Parliament from 1979 to 1982, the first woman to hold this position. She was also a member of the Constitutional Council, the highest legal authority in France, from 1998 to 2007.

Simone Veil is best known for advancing women's rights in France, notably through the "Loi Veil", the 1975 law that legalized abortion.

She was born in 1927 into an explicitly Jewish family with Lorraine origins, but was non-practicing and "very secular". Veil states in her autobiography that her "membership in the Jewish community was never a problem for me. It was highly claimed by my father, not for religious reasons, but for cultural reasons."

In 1944, at the age of 16, in German-occupied France, she and her family were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Her father and brother were deported to the Baltic States, but she never saw them again. Her sister Denise was deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she survived. She was reunited with her sisters Simone and Madeleine after the war. Simone was deported to Auschwitz, but escaped the gas chamber by lying about her age. She was then sent to a labor camp.

In January 1945, Simone, her mother and her sister Madeleine were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where her mother died of typhus. Madeleine also became ill, but was saved, along with Simone, when the camp was liberated on April 15, 1945.

When she returned to France after the war, she felt ready to talk about what she had experienced, but felt that few people wanted to hear her. She will evoke the deportation of her family in a documentary, broadcast on September 2, 1976, and will insist on the Jewish specificity of the Shoah.

Also known as the Holocaust, the Shoah refers to the systematic extermination (or genocide) carried out by Nazi Germany against the Jewish people during the Second World War, which led to the disappearance of nearly six million (or more) Jews. The term "Holocaust" was popularized by the 1978 American series of the same name, which recounted the genocide of the Jews during the war. However, in Jewish tradition, the Holocaust is a sacrifice "made of burned animal flesh offered to God to please him. The use of this term is therefore considered by Jews to be a serious misunderstanding. French-speaking Europeans use the term "Shoah" (meaning "catastrophe" in Hebrew), which was also popularized by Claude Lanzmann's film of the same name in 1985.

A survivor of the Shoah, Simone Veil was a firm believer in European integration as a means to guarantee peace. She was President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah from 2001 to 2007, and then Honorary President.

After the war, back in France, she began studying law at the University of Paris, then entered the Institute of Political Studies where she met her husband, Antoine Veil. In 1956, she gave up working as a lawyer and passed the national competitive examination to become a magistrate.

She first held a management position at the National Prison Administration under the Ministry of Justice, where she was responsible for judicial affairs and improving the conditions of detention and the treatment of women prisoners.

During the Algerian War, on behalf of the Minister of Justice at the time, Edmond Michelet, Veil succeeded in having Algerian women prisoners transferred to France, where they were exposed to ill-treatment and rape, as well as men threatened with the death penalty. She also obtained the detention as a political regime for thousands of members of the National Liberation Front interned in France.

In 1964, she left her position to become director of civil affairs, where she improved the rights and general status of French women. She successfully obtained the right to double parental guardianship over family legal matters and the right to adoption for women.

In 1970, while a member of the Syndicat de la Magistrature, she became the first woman to obtain the position of Secretary General of the Conseil supérieur de la Magistrature.

In 1971, Veil was the first woman to be appointed to the Board of Directors of the ORTF (Office de radiodiffusion-télévision française). While holding this position, she surprisingly opposed the broadcasting of the documentary film "Le Chagrin et la Pitié". The film, which dealt with the German occupation of the French city of Clermont-Ferrand during the Second World War, was judged by Veil to be unfair and partisan.

Living in a milieu close to the Mouvement Républicain Populaire, of which her husband was a member, Simone Veil was liberal and open-minded on social issues. In particular, she viewed the period of May 68, during which numerous student demonstrations and general strikes took place in France, with great approval. "Contrary to others, I didn't think that young people were wrong: we were living in a frozen era".

In 1974, under the presidency of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Simone Veil was appointed Minister of Health in the government of Jacques Chirac. She retained this position under the governments of Raymond Barre, becoming the second woman to become a full minister, after Germaine Poinso-Chapuis in 1947.

During her years as Minister of Health, she promoted two major laws. The first, passed in 1974, facilitated access to contraception and the sale of contraceptives such as the combined oral contraceptive pill, legalized in 1967.

But it was the second law that made her known in France and throughout the world, and the one she fought for the most: the Veil Law, passed in January 1975. This law legalized abortion (voluntary interruption of pregnancy) in France. This fight, which she led with determination, earned her many insults and threats from the Far Right and the Parliamentary Right, who opposed the legalization of abortion.

Veil also opposed the trivialization of abortion. For her, it "will always remain a tragedy", and although her law no longer prohibits it, it does not create any rights.

Since the law was passed, many have paid tribute to her and thanked her for her courageous and determined fight. In a speech to members of parliament, she maintained that "abortion must remain the exception, the last resort for situations with no way out.

In 1976, as a smoker herself, Veil contributed to the adoption of the French anti-smoking law: restrictions on advertising, health warnings on cigarette packets and bans on smoking in certain public places.

She also worked on the problem of underserved rural areas. She closed down establishments with low activity, balanced the accounts of the Pasteur Institute, set up financial aid for mothers with young children and had a law adopted to help the disabled.

Also a civil rights activist, she participated with other members of the French government in the defeat of Valéry Giscard d'Estaing's plan for the forced return of 100,000 Algerians.

In 1979, she was elected member of the European Parliament. During its first session, she was elected by the new Parliament as its first president, a position she held until 1982.

During her term of office, she passed a law giving the State the power to set the numerus clausus (a limit on the number of medical students) according to the health needs of the population, and no longer according to the capacity of the hospital services to receive students for their clinical training, as had been the case before, since its introduction in 1971.
She also supported Yvette Roudy's proposal to create a Women's Rights Commission, and brought more visibility to the European Parliament in the field of human rights.

In 1981, she won the prestigious Charlemagne Prize, an award given to honor the contributions made by individuals to the promotion of European unity.

In 1983, with her husband, she created the Vauban Club, a think tank aimed at overcoming political divisions. She declared, in the program "L'Heure de vérité", that she was "on the left for some issues, on the right for others".

From 1984 to 1992, Veil was a member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety and a member of the Political Affairs Committee. She later served on the Committee on Foreign Affairs and its Subcommittee on Human Rights.

From 1989 to 1993, she was also a member of the Parliament's delegation to the Joint Parliamentary Assembly, of which she was also vice-president until 1992.

In 1996, Simon Veil was appointed member of the International Commission for the Balkans, established the previous year by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

That same year, while Minister of State for Social Affairs, Health and Urban Affairs in the government of Edouard Balladur, and when the number of women in the legislature had reached a ceiling of only 6%, Veil signed the petition "Manifesto for Parity" initiated by Yvette Roudy, in the magazine L'Express, bringing together ten women politicians from the left and right. Most of the proposals put forward in this petition were included in the Jospin law on parity, passed in 2000.

Simone Veil has also supported numerous associations such as the European Fund for Freedom of Expression; ELSA France, an independent and apolitical international association managed by and for law students; and the European Science Foundation, of which she is Honorary President, which aims to promote scientific research and improve European cooperation in this field.

In 2007, she published her autobiography entitled "Une vie" which was subsequently translated into nearly fifteen languages, sold more than 550,000 copies in France and was awarded the Lauriers verts prize in 2009.

Her public action is also recognized by her election to the "Immortals", the name given to the members of the French Academy.

In 2008, she was elected in the first round of voting for a place in the Académie Française. As such, her sword of academician is given to her in the Senate in 2010. This distinction is given to members of the Institute of France, which brings together the nation's scientific, literary and artistic elite with the common goal of perfecting the sciences and arts, developing independent thinking and advising the public authorities. Her sword is engraved with her service number (78651), which was inscribed on her arm during her deportation to Auschwitz, as well as the motto of the French Republic, "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité", and that of the European Union, "In varietate concordia".

In 2009, Veil was also a member of the jury of the Prize for Conflict Prevention, and the following year she received the European Civil Rights Award for Sinti and Roma for her commitment to these two minorities.

Simone Veil received countless French, foreign and university honors and decorations, far too many to mention. On the French side, we can cite her distinction in the National Order of the Legion of Honor in 2009: Veil was directly "elevated to the dignity of Grand Officer" as "former minister, former member of the Constitutional Council, member of the French Academy, for her 51 years of professional activities, civil services and elective functions", then "elevated to the dignity of Grand Cross" in 2012 as "former minister, former president of the European Parliament, former member of the Constitutional Council, member of the French Academy".

On the foreign side, she was inducted into the International Hall of Fame of the International Women's Forum. She was also named Grand Master of the Ivorian Order of Merit (1976), Grand Officer of the Order of Valor of Cameroon (1982), she received the Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (1975), the Honorary Prize of the Johanna Lowenherz Foundation (1987, Germany), the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of Portugal (1987) and the Heinrich Heine Prize of the City of Düsseldorf for her life's work (2010).

Following his death in 2017, many personalities paid tribute to him in France, but also abroad. The Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in particular, recalls "the closeness and solidarity that this great lady [...] has shown to the Algerian people during the terrible national tragedy it has experienced," allowing Algerian prisoners to avoid the guillotine. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel also salutes his commitment of several decades in "the process of European unification".

A national tribute was paid to her at the Invalides, and several petitions were launched to have her entered the Pantheon. The first petition, launched by the feminist association Politiqu'elles, collected more than 110 000 signatures. Another reached 120 000 signatures.

Two of her granddaughters, extremely touched by this movement, are nevertheless saddened by the idea that their grandparents (Simone and her husband) are separated after 65 years of living together. This is why, in agreement with Simone Veil's family, the President of the Republic announced, at the end of the tribute at the Invalides, that Simone Veil would be laid to rest in the Pantheon with her husband. She is the fifth woman to be inducted. This took place on July 1, 2018, and was preceded by an exhibition at the Memorial of the Shoah, June 28 and 30.

© Photo: Rob Croes for Anefo - CC0 1.0

Article by Julie Poutrel for Adama Toulon.