French political icon Simone Veil eulogised as 'best of France'


Paris (AFP)

Simone Veil, the Auschwitz survivor who became a towering figure in French politics after pushing to legalise abortion in the face of fierce opposition, was hailed Friday as the best of France, following her death at 89.

Veil, a women's rights icon who served as the first elected president of the European Parliament, died at her home, her son Jean Veil said.

Expressing his condolences, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: "May her example inspire our fellow citizens, as the best of what France can achieve."

Macron's office announced a state funeral for Veil on Wednesday, adding that EU flags would fly at half mast on the day with French flags on public buildings bearing a black ribbon in her memory.

Macron's predecessor Francois Hollande said Veil "embodied dignity, courage and moral rectitude".

"France has lost a figure the likes of which history produces few," French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe added in a tweet.

Former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, whom Veil served as health minister in the 1970s, said: "She was an exceptional woman who experienced life's greatest joys and its greatest sadnesses."

The foundation of former President Jacques Chirac, who was Giscard's prime minister at the time the abortion bill passed, saluted Veil as the "grande dame of the Republic".

Tributes also poured in from Brussels.

"She suffered personally from the tragic tearing asunder of Europe and managed, through her political engagement, to help build sustained peace in Europe," European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker wrote in a letter to Macron.

Veil -- a model of composure who always wore her hair in a sleek bun and dressed in Chanel suits -- was seen as something of a secular saint for her unwavering stance on moral issues.

Her standout achievement as a politician was shepherding a 1974 abortion law through parliament after a 25-hour debate during which she endured a torrent of abuse, with some lawmakers likening pregnancy terminations to the Holocaust.

- 'Hatred unleashed' -

"I never imagined the hatred that I would unleash," the former health minister said later.

Born Simone Jacob in the Mediterranean city of Nice on July 13, 1927, Veil was deported to Auschwitz in 1944.

Her father, mother and brother died in the Nazi death camps, while she and her two sisters, one of whom later died in a car crash, survived.

After the war she studied law and married Antoine Veil, who died in April 2013. The couple had three sons.

As a young judge she lobbied for improved conditions in French prisons before throwing herself into the battle to end backstreet abortions.

A staunch believer in European integration, she became the first elected president of the European Parliament in 1979, a post she held for three years.

Polls consistently showed her to be one of France's most popular and trusted figures.

She also frequently took part in World War II commemorations and spoke out against the far-right National Front (FN).

FN leader Marine Le Pen said Veil had "undeniably left her mark on French political life".