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French abortion rights champion, holocaust survivor Simone Veil dies, aged 89

Simone Veil photographed in February 2008
Simone Veil photographed in February 2008 Wikimedia
Text by: Tony Cross
7 min

Simone Veil, the concentration camp survivor who persuaded the French parliament to legalise abortion, has died at the age of 89. President Emmanuel Macron declared that she represented the "best of France" and hundreds of other tributes have been paid to her.


"Let her example inspire our compatriots, who will find the best of France in it," Macron said in a Tweet after her death was announced by her family on Thursday.

For his predecessor, François Hollande, Veil "epitomised dignity, courage and rectitude".

"France has lost an exceptional woman, a great witness and an activist for the memory of the Shoah," Francis Kalifat of Jewish group Crif declared.

Former health minister Marisol Touraine paid tribute to a "woman of courage and commitment for the rights and freedoms of women", while Laurence Parisot, the former head of bosses' union Medef, commented, "For all we owe you ... how can we thank you?"

National Front leader Marine Le Pen hailed "a woman who unquestionably made her mark on French political life", praising a "lifetime's fight for remembrance".

Sent to concentration camps

Born to a secular Jewish family in the south of France, Veil saw her father, a prizewinning architect, banned from exercising his pofession under the wartime collaborationist Vichy government and was deported to the Nazi death camps along with the rest of her family in 1944.

On the advice of another deportee, she told the guards she was 18 not 16, thus avoiding being sent to the gas chambers.

She, her mother and her sister Madeleine, were first sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau then sent on the "Death March" to Bergen-Belsen, where her mother died.

Simone Veil kept the tattoo of her number at Auschwitz - 78651 - on her arm for the rest of her life and was president of France's Holocaust remembrance association from 2000-07.

On her return to France she studied law and became a magistrate, meeting and marrying Antoine Veil.

She had to convince her husband of her right to pursue a career as a magistrate, going on to become the head of the profession's top body.

Simone Veil presents the abortion bill to parliament
Simone Veil presents the abortion bill to parliament AFP

Battle for abortion rights

But she became best-known for her battle to legalise abortion after being appointed health minister in a centre-right government in 1974.

"I never imagined the hatred I would stir up," she commented later.

Facing a parliament of nine women and 481 men, "some of whom were furtively trying to obtain an abortion for their mistresses", she told her audience that some 300,000 abortions took place illegally in France every year "mutilating the women of this country".

Her speech was warmly applauded by the left but not by many in the ruling party.

During the debate René Feït and Emmanuel Hamel broadcast recordings of a foetus's heartbeat, the former warning that the legislation would be responsible for "twice as many victims as the Hiroshima bomb".

Another MP, Hector Rolland, accused Veil of making "the choice of genocide", while Jacques Médecin spoke of "barbarity organised and endorsed by the law as it was by the Nazis".

In scenes reminiscent of the recent campaign against same-sex marriage, hardline Catholics counted rosary beads in silence outside parliament, while Veil received thousands of insulting letters and some of her acquaintances refused to talk to her.

The law, which authorised abortion for five years, was passed by 284 to 180, thanks to the votes of the left and the centrists.

Two-thirds of the MPs from the ruling party voted against.

Abortion was made permanently legal in France on 31 December 1979.

President of European parliament

In 1979 president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing proposed Veil as the president of the first directly elected European parliament.

"A former deportee take the presidency of the Strasbourg parliament struck him as a good sign for the future," Vil wrote later.

Described by many who had worked with her as demanding and impatient with mediocrity, Veil was one of France's most popular public figures up till her death.

  • 13 July 1927: Born in Nice to Antoine and Yvonne Jacob;
  • 1940: Antoine Jacob is banned from practicing as an architect under the Vichy regime’s Jewish Status of Jews law;
  • 1944: Deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp along with her mother and sister, escapes the gas chambers by lying about her age; her father and brother, Jean, are deported separately;
  • 1945: Transferred to Bergen-Belsen, where her mother dies, returns to France after the liberation of the camp, starts studying law in Paris, meets Antoine Veil at university;
  • 1946: Marries Antoine Veil with whom she will have three sons;
  • 1956: Begins career as magistrate;
  • 1970-74: First woman to head the French magistrature’s governing body (CSM);
  • 1971: First woman to sit on the board of national broadcaster ORTF;
  • 1974: Appointed health minister by then president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and prime minister Jacques Chirac, presents law allowing abortion to parliament for it to be passed on 29 November;
  • 1977-78: Social security is added to her ministerial responsibilities;
  • 1978-79: Family policy is added to her ministerial responsibilities;
  • 1979: Resigns as minister to stand for the European parliament for the centre-right UDF;
  • 1979-82: Becomes the first president of a directly elected European parliament, reelected in 1984 and 1989;
  • 1988: Supports Raymond Barre’s presidential election campaign;
  • 1992: Campaigns for a yes vote in France's referendum on the EU's Maastricht treaty;
  • 1993-95: Leaves the European parliament, becomes health and social affairs minister under prime minister Edouard Balladur;
  • 1995: Supports Balladur’s presidential election campaign;
  • 1998-2007: Member of the Constitutional Council;
  • 2000-2007: President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah;
  • 2007: Support Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaign, publishes her autobiography Une Vie (A Life);
  • 2009: Admitted to the Académie française;
  • 30 June 2017: Dies at the age of 89.

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