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Obituary for Simone Veil

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"It rests on the principles that you affirm and, against all odds, without ever raising your voice, manage to convince everyone of. We can say this without airs: In the heart of political life, you offer a moral and republican image."
Jean d'Ormesson

by Douglas Johnson, The Guardian
Friday 30 June 2017 14.00 BST Last modified on Friday 30 June 2017 23.15 BST

Survivor of Nazi death camps who made her name as the French health minister responsible for legalising abortion.

In November 1974, the French minister for health, Simone Veil, rose to address the national assembly and to propose a law legalising abortion. For the next three days, she fought a tremendous battle under the eye of the media. Outside the assembly, "Let them live" campaigners distributed leaflets containing terrible illustrations, and a number of women, led by a priest, walked in procession reciting prayers.
The measure was the most controversial in France for many years, and the situation politically complicated. Within the government, the prime minister, Jacques Chirac, was not in favour of the projected law, and the minister for justice, who was absent from the assembly, had pronounced that, for him, "abortion means death". The president of the republic, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, had insisted on the law, but not succeeded in persuading his followers. The project was passed only because the opposition endorsed it. This was considered a triumph for Veil, who has died aged 89, and, despite her protests, the law became widely known as "la loi Veil".

The story went that when Giscard became president in April 1974 he visited Antoine Veil, a civil servant who had become a powerful figure in the aeronautical industry, to invite him to join the government. Instead he chose Antoine's wife, Simone. She had had a distinguished career as a magistrate. After qualifying at the Paris Law Faculty, marrying Antoine in 1946 and having three sons, she became a magistrate in 1956. Very soon she was advising successive ministers for justice (including François Mitterrand) and was involved in the case of Djamila Bouhired, a young woman tortured in an Algerian prison, whom she brought to safety in France.

In 1970 Veil became the first female secretary general of the council of the magistrature. One of her main preoccupations during this period was adoption: in 1969, with two doctors, she had produced a book examining its medical, psychological and social aspects. She also joined the administrative council of French radio and television.

She therefore had a wide range of experience by the time she became minister for health in 1974. After her triumph on the abortion question, she turned to a whole series of other problems, and in 1976 she also took charge of social security. She was responsible for reform of the syllabus in medical studies; led a vigorous (although largely unsuccessful) campaign against smoking; set out to make hospitals places where there was more humanity and less administrative rigour; and tackled the problem of doctors removing organs from deceased patients for the purposes of research. While she remained popular, she also gained a reputation for being impatient and over-exacting.

In 1979 Giscard had another task for Veil: the first elections were due to be held for the European parliament, and the president wanted her to head his party's list. She readily accepted, since she strongly believed in the need to create a unified Europe.

Daughter of Yvonne (née Steinmetz) and André Jacob, she was born in Nice into a Jewish family. They were not devoutly religious, but Simone became bitterly aware of her Jewishness when the local lycée was closed to her, and her father, an architect, was prevented from practicing. Simone, her eldest sister, Milou, and her parents were arrested in 1944, just after Simone had sat the baccalauréat exam. She, her mother and sister were sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz, then to Bergen-Belsen, where her mother died. Her brother, Jean, and father were deported and could not be traced. Another sister, Denise, who had been in the resistance, was sent to Ravensbrück camp.

Veil could not understand how the war had come about. Why did one European country have to make war on another? On her liberation, she discovered other injustices. Denise, with others who had been in the resistance, was honoured. Those who had simply suffered were ignored or, in some cases, made the subject of jokes. In 1950, Veil was at a reception given by the French consulate in Mainz, Germany. She bore the Auschwitz camp number that the Germans had tattooed on her arm, and a French diplomat, seeing this, frivolously asked if it was her cloakroom number. Veil burst into tears. She always struggled against the reluctance of people to believe that the Jews had been persecuted by the Germans and by the French simply because they were Jews.
The European elections of 1979 brought her to the parliament in Strasbourg and she was elected its president, occupying the post until 1982. She became even more devoted a European, insisting that there should be more than economic union.

Back in France, Veil showed a reluctance to commit to any political party. She was alarmed by the growth of the far-right Front National and by the Gaullists occasionally making local alliances with it. Remaining hostile to the communists, she was tempted to join the moderate socialist government formed by Michel Rocard in 1988. Eventually she became minister for social affairs in the government of Edouard Balladur, from 1993 to 1995. There she was able to give financial help to women who wanted to leave work to look after their children, but she was in complete opposition to the extension of the powers of the state to control immigration. In 1998 she was appointed to the Constitutional Council of France.

When not in office, she and her husband took part in discussion clubs and exercised an influence on many politicians. Poor health in later years led her to abstain from playing a direct role in the political scene. Among many honours, she was made an honorary dame in 1998, was elected to the Académie Française in 2008, and received the grand cross of the Légion d'honneur in 2012. Her memoir, Une Vie, was published in 2007.

Antoine died in 2013, and her son Claude-Nicolas in 2002. She is survived by her other sons, Jean and Pierre-François.

Simone Veil, Ex-Minister Who Wrote France's Abortion Law, Dies at 89
New York Times By SEWELL CHANJUNE 30, 2017

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Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor who served as health minister of France and as president of the European Parliament, in 2008. Credit Susana Vera/Reuters

Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor who as health minister of France championed the 1975 law that legalized abortion in that country, and who was the first woman to be chosen president of the European Parliament, died on Friday in Paris. She was 89.

The death was confirmed by President Emmanuel Macron, who offered condolences to her family on Twitter and called her life an exemplary inspiration.

"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," his office said in a statement.

Trained as a lawyer, Mrs. Veil (pronounced vayy) rose to the top ranks of public life, drafting legislation expanding the rights of prison inmates, people with disabilities and disadvantaged children, as well as measures that barred discrimination and expanded health benefits.

In 2008, she became one of few politicians to be elected to the Académie Française, the august 40-member body that is the authority on the French language; Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the president under whom Mrs. Veil served as health minister, is another.

Opinion polls routinely showed Mrs. Veil to be one of the most admired people in France.

The abortion law, still known as the Veil Law, was one of the most divisive actions taken by the government of Mr. Giscard d'Estaing and his first prime minister, Jacques Chirac.

In three days of debate before the National Assembly passed the law on Nov. 29, 1974, by a vote of 284 to 189, phrases like "an act of murder," "monstrous" and "France is making coffins instead of cribs" were hurled in the chamber. Critics likened abortion to Nazi euthanasia; one asked, "Madame Minister, do you want to send children to the ovens?"

Mrs. Veil told lawmakers: "I say this with total conviction: Abortion should stay an exception, the last resort for desperate situations. How, you may ask, can we tolerate it without its losing the character of an exception — without it seeming as though society encourages it? I will share a conviction of women, and I apologize for doing it in front of this assembly comprised almost exclusively of men: No woman resorts to abortion lightheartedly."

Abortion had been criminalized in France since the Napoleonic era. The new law, which took effect on Jan. 17, 1975, made the procedure legal during the first 10 weeks of pregnancy (later extended to 12), and required that the procedure be carried out by a doctor at a hospital or a clinic. Girls under 18 were required to obtain parental consent.

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Mrs. Veil delivered a speech before the French Parliament in 1974 defending a bill allowing abortion. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mrs. Veil, whose parents and brother died in the Holocaust, rejected the comparison of abortion to murder as absurd.

Simone Jacob was born in Nice, France, on July 13, 1927, the youngest of four children of André Jacob, an architect, and the former Yvonne Steinmetz. She completed her baccalaureate, the diploma required to pursue university studies, on March 29, 1944, the day before her arrest by the Germans.

She was deported, with her eldest sibling, Madeleine (nicknamed Milou), and their mother, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp and then to Bergen-Belsen. The two sisters were liberated on April 15, 1945, but their mother had died of typhus weeks earlier.

Another sister, Denise, who entered the Resistance at the start of the war, was arrested and deported to the Ravensbrück camp in Germany, but survived by hiding her Jewish identity.

No trace of their father, André, and brother, Jean — last recorded in Lithuania on a convoy of French Jews bound for Estonia — was ever found.

"I'm often asked what gave me the strength and will to continue the fight," Mrs. Veil told an interviewer in 2005. "I believe deeply that it was my mother; she has never stopped being present to me, next to me."

Her left forearm forever carried the number tattooed on it at Auschwitz; she tended to wear long-sleeve dresses.

Resuming her studies in law and political science in Paris, Simone Jacob met a fellow student at Sciences-Po, Antoine Veil. He later enrolled at the École Nationale d'Administration, which trains France's top civil servants, and became a businessman.

They married in 1946 and had three sons: Jean, Claude-Nicolas and Pierre-François. The middle son died in 2002; Mr. Veil, in 2013.

Mrs. Veil is survived by her two other sons and 12 grandchildren. Her sister Milou died in a car accident in 1952; her sister Denise died in 2013.

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Mrs. Veil in 1974, when she was health minister. Credit Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In 1954, Mrs. Veil passed the extremely competitive national examination to become a magistrate. As an official in the Justice Ministry, she helped improve living conditions for female prisoners, including Algerians detained during their country's war for independence.

At age 46, she was plucked from the Civil Service by Mr. Giscard d'Estaing to serve as health minister, becoming only the second woman to hold full cabinet rank in France. (The first was Germaine Poinso-Chapuis, health minister from 1947 to 1948.)

Mrs. Veil left the government in 1979 to run for the European Parliament, in the first direct elections to that legislative body, for what was then the European Economic Community, a precursor to the European Union.

In her July 17, 1979, speech accepting the presidency of the Parliament, she said: "Whatever our political beliefs, we are all aware that this historic step, the election of the European Parliament by universal suffrage, has been taken at a crucial time for the people of the Community. All its 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 that they can only be met through the European dimension."

Mrs. Veil was president of the Parliament until 1982 and remained a member until 1993. She returned to the French government in 1993, as minister for health, social affairs and urban issues, under Prime Minister Édouard Balladur, serving until 1995.

From 1997 to 1998, she was president of the High Council for Integration, a body devoted to the assimilation of immigrants, and in 1998 she began a nine-year term as a member of the Constitutional Council, the country's highest legal authority.

Mrs. Veil was also the president of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, France's Holocaust remembrance organization, from 2000 to 2007, and chairwoman of the board of the Trust Fund for Victims from 2003 to 2009. The group supports victims of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in cooperation with the International Criminal Court.

She published an autobiography in 2007, in which she criticized the long delay in the French government's acceptance of responsibility for the murder of French Jews, whose deportations were organized by the collaborationist regime based in Vichy. The French state affirmed its "collective error" for the crimes only in 1995, during Mr. Chirac's presidency, after decades of equivocation.

When Mrs. Veil was elected to the Académie Française, the novelist Jean d'Ormesson paid her tribute, saying her "capacity to bring about support among the French" was crucial to her popularity.
"This support does not rest on mediocre and lame consensus among the countless opinions that never cease dividing our old country," he said. "It rests on the principles that you affirm and, against all odds, without ever raising your voice, manage to convince everyone of. We can say this without airs: In the heart of political life, you offer a moral and republican image."