France says moving farewell to ‘scout who showed the way’

Holocaust survivor and first woman cabinet minister Simone Veil died last month

 

France paid a national homage on Wednesday to Simone Veil, the Holocaust survivor, first woman cabinet minister, first president of the European Parliament, academician and stateswoman who died on June 30th, two weeks before her 90th birthday.

Veil’s sons, Jean and Pierre-Francois, and French president Emmanuel Macron, addressed mourners in the courtyard of Les Invalides. The casket, draped in a tricolour flag, was carried by 12 Republican Guards and placed on a low wooden bier through the moving, hour-long ceremony.

Veil was the youngest of four children in a secular Jewish family that settled in Nice. During the occupation, she was protected by a teacher and passed her baccalaureat exam under a false name. The following day, she was arrested by the SS and taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her parents and her brother, Jean, died in the camps.

As soon as the war ended, Veil pleaded for reconciliation between France and Germany. She was obsessed by the idea that the two countries must never go to war again. “Someone close to her told me he never heard Simone Veil say the slightest bitter or hurtful word against Germans or Germany,” Macron said.

Veil met her husband, Antoine, when both were students, right after the war. Their marriage lasted 67 years, until his death in 2013, and produced three sons and 12 grandchildren. Their family life, and Veil’s brilliant career, were seen as proof of the resilience of the human spirit. “Determination was the armour that enabled you to survive hell,” her son Jean said before his mother’s coffin.

“Before the age of 10, I knew the name Auschwitz and the fate the Nazis reserved for the Jews,” Jean Veil said. He recalled his mother’s return to the death camp, 60 years after she was taken there at the age of 16. “You showed us the gas chambers and the ovens. You recounted the journey in the cattle car with wailing children. The arrival... Mengele sorting people. The head shaving, tattooing numbers… the pestilential odour of burning bodies, the black ash falling...”

Veil’s younge

r son, Pierre-Francois, thanked France for the outpouring of emotion since his mother’s death. “This homage is your ultimate victory over the death camps and that night in March 1945 when… the camp kapos took the lifeless body of your mother, our grandmother, to throw it in the mass grave…”

Abortion legislation

As minister of health in 1974, Veil defended the law that carries her name, and which legalised abortion. Male representatives in the National Assembly hounded her with sexist and anti-Semitic comments. “You don’t scare me! I’ve survived worse than you!” she told them. One deputy compared her law to Nazi crimes against humanity. “No woman undergoes an abortion with a light heart,” she argued. “It’s a tragedy and will always remain a tragedy.”

Veil led the centrist UDF list in the first European parliamentary elections in 1979, and became that parliament’s first president. For 20 years, she was the most popular female politician in France. When she was inducted into the Académie francaise in 2010, her life story was engraved on the sword given to her by her entourage: clasped hands signifying reconciliation, the face of a woman, the mottos of France and the EU. On the cross-guard of the sword: “Birkenau” and “78651”, the number tattooed on her left forearm.

The Pantheon

Macron’s tribute to Veil was more an evocation of her character, of her ability to stand up to power and the tenderness she showed to the weak, than a summary of her career. “She often got it right before public opinion did,” he said. “Simone Veil was a scout who showed the way to the Republic. Alone, she took what were believed to be unassailable Bastilles.”

More than 350,000 people signed a petition for Veil’s remains be taken to the Pantheon, France’s temple to great men and women. “At the moment when you leave us, I beg you, Madame, to receive the immense thanks of the French people to one of their beloved children, whose example will never leave us,” Macron said at the end of his tribute. “That is why I decided, in agreement with her family, that Simone Veil will rest with her husband in the Pantheon.”