Simone Veil is arguably the one person most responsible for advancing women’s legal rights in France during the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first century. She is certainly the one whose name comes up most often, each time the law that bears her name is mentioned—the law that she proposed and fought for in the French Parliament, the law legalizing abortion that went into effect on January 17, 1975. Today, even if women are not familiar with her numerous accomplishments, they remember her name every time abortion and other contraceptive rights are discussed.
Simone Jacob was born in Nice on July 13, 1927. Her father, André (b. Paris 1890–d. 1944?), earned a degree in architecture from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1913. In 1922 he married Yvonne Steinmetz (b. Paris 1990–d. Bergen-Belsen 1945), who had earned a baccalauréat in science and had intended to study chemistry but abandoned this plan upon marriage. The couple had four children: Madeleine (nicknamed Milou), born in 1923; Denise (b. 1924), Jean (b. 1925) and Simone. They moved to Nice in 1924 to take advantage of construction projects on the Côte d’Azur. Simone was educated at the city’s lycée and completed her baccalauréat on March 28, 1944, two days before her arrest by the Germans. She has always feared that taking the test and giving her real name led to the arrest of her entire family. Yvonne, Milou and Simone were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and then to Bergen-Belsen. Only the daughters survived and were liberated on January 27, 1945. Denise, who had entered the French Resistance at the start of the war, was arrested and deported to Ravensbruck as a resistant, not as a Jew. Among the first to be liberated, she reached Paris by May 1, 1945.
As for André, he was deported, together with Jean, on May 15, 1944, in Convoy 73, which comprised 878 Jewish males who were taken from Paris-Bobigny to Reval, Estonia (present-day Tallin), with a stop in Kovno, Lithuania. Of these, only seventeen survived. No researchers have been able to determine what happened to André and Jean. One of the saddest details of André’s fate is that he fought in World War I and was a staunch supporter of the French Republic, believing that patriotism and secularity were the most essential factors for progress for France. Simone has said that he raised his children to be proud of their nationality above all else; he believed that his fellow countrymen would never capitulate to Nazi demands to deport Jews.
In recent documentaries and interviews, Veil has talked about the humiliation and agony of those days, of her mother’s courage and of her continuing grief over her mother’s absence. Having succumbed to typhus in Bergen-Belsen, her mother was and has remained Veil’s major role model. In her remarks following the screening of a documentary on her life’s work at the 2005 International Women’s Film Festival in Créteil, Veil displayed her characteristic charisma as she addressed the audience of various ages and backgrounds. Along with her work and achievements, the topic of the session was also “What future for feminism and women’s rights in France?” In her speech, Veil first paid tribute to her mother, describing her bravery at all times and especially during the internment in Auschwitz. If death was a relief to her personally due to mental and physical exhaustion, she instilled passion and the will to survive into her daughters. When Veil is asked how she found the stamina to withstand the onslaught of vitriolic attacks during the debate on abortion, she repeats that she owes it all to her mother. Even today, some sixty years after her death, Veil’s mother remains ever-present for her, with her: “I’m often asked what gave me the strength and will to continue the fight. I believe deeply that it was my mother; she has never stopped being present to me, next to me” (Ruth Hottell’s translation).
Milou’s sudden death in an automobile accident in 1952 was a powerful blow to Simone; because they had suffered through, and survived, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen together, then struggled through the unexpectedly difficult re-entry into French society, Milou was the only person with whom Simone could feel truly compatible and look to for support in difficult times—in her marriage, her career and her life in general.
Returning to studies after the war, Simone gained a diploma in law and political science, then decided to sit for the extremely competitive national examination to become a magistrate, which she passed in 1954. In October 1946 she married Antoine Veil (b. Blâmont, Meurthe-et-Moselle, 1926), who completed the program at the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, which prepares students for France’s highest political positions. After a successful career in public administration, he moved to private enterprise. The Veils had three sons: Jean (b. 1947), Nicolas (b. 1948) and Pierre-François (b. 1954).
Even with her mother’s memory and her family’s support (as well as that of then President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who had just appointed her as Minister of Health), the days during the abortion debate in 1974 were immeasurably difficult. Much of the aggression was aimed personally at Veil and her family and smacked of antisemitism; it came from all sides, from members of the Parliament on the floor to anonymous letters to her office and her home. The most abhorrent remarks even compared the legalization of abortion to the Holocaust. The anonymous attacks included swastikas painted on her car and the elevator in her building and letters condemning her children to hell. At about the same time, Parliament also voted to ban laboratory experiments on animals for commercial purposes; during debate on that issue, certain members openly likened what they called the genocide of animals to the “genocide” of babies and to the genocide of Auschwitz. The worst comment she remembers from the time was one made by Jean-Marie Daillet, a député in Parliament, who asked if she would agree to the idea of throwing embryos into crematorium ovens. However, at the same time, and in the years since, many others have paid tribute to her, approaching her even in the street to thank her and tell her she will never be forgotten for all she has done. She cites an example of a man who came up to her in a shop near her home and said that “her” law has also meant great progress for men.
As crucial as the Loi Veil is, it would be a mistake to overlook Veil’s other contributions to French society, particularly to those with no other champions for their cause. From 1946 to 1974 she held various positions through which she was able to further women’s rights. For example, from 1957 to 1964, when she functioned as a penitentiary administrator, she noticed that, although the number of women prisoners was far lower than that of men and that they presented no significant discipline problems, the conditions of their incarceration were far more repressive. She therefore acted to improve the way they were treated. During the Algerian war, she succeeded in regrouping Algerian women prisoners together and enabling them to pursue an education. Her next appointment was as the director of civil affairs, a position in which she had a direct impact on French women’s general rights and status. Among her achievements in this post were dual parental control of family legal matters, rights for mothers and their children by undeclared fathers and adoption rights for women. Next, at the Ministry of Health (1975 to 1979), she fought to end various forms of discrimination against women. Besides the highly visible Loi Veil, she strove in other ways to help women care for their families; for example, she was able to expand health coverage, monthly stipends for child care, maternity benefits, etc.
Having been the first female minister in the French government, Veil followed with a number of other “firsts.” She left the health ministry in 1979 to run in the first direct-suffrage European parliamentary elections and became the first woman president of the European Parliament (with a set term of three years). She was elected to the parliament for further terms: as representative in 1984 and 1989 and, since 1984, also as its deputy president. From 1993 to 1995, she returned to the French government as under-secretary (Ministre d’état) of Social Affairs, Health and Urban Issues. From 1997 to 1998 she was president of the High Council for Integration. In March 1998 she was named to the Conseil Constitutionnel (the highest legal authority in France and the judicial component in the governmental system of checks and balances, along with the executive and legislative branches) with her term due to expire in March 2007.
In thinking back upon her career, Veil underscores the personal symbolic aspect of having been first at so many things; in particular, she mentions the importance of a Holocaust survivor presiding over the European Parliament. In hypothesizing her parents’ possible reactions, she is not certain her father would even have approved of the European Union since he remained very anti-German throughout his life. On the other hand, she feels certain her mother would have wished for the reconciliation and would have been very happy to see her daughter participate in it.
Along with her professional positions and accomplishments, Veil has been active in various groups and received high honors for her dedication. Among other activities, she is the president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah and honorary president of the Foundation of Science and Culture in Europe. She has received awards from the Klein Foundation (Philadelphia, 1991), The Truman Award for Peace (Jerusalem, 1991), the Giulietta Award (Verona, 1991), the Atlantida Award (Barcelona, 1991), the Gold Medal from the Stresemann Association (Mayence, 1993), the Obiettivo Europa Award (Milan, 1993), the Henrietta Szold Award (Miami, 1996) and the Gold Medal for furthering the Health of All Peoples from the World Health Organization (1997). She has been appointed both Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite and Grand Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). Among the numerous universities that have bestowed an honorary degree on her are Princeton (1975), the Weizmann Institute (1976), Bar Ilan University (1980), Cambridge (1980), Yale (1980), Georgetown (1981), Yeshiva University (1982), the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1986), Brandeis (1989) and the University of Pennsylvania (1997).
When asked if she is a feminist, Veil says she does not consider herself a militant per se, mainly because she weighs all sides of an issue before acting whereas militancy requires serving a cause while glossing over its inconsistencies. But she does feel like a feminist in the sense of solidarity with women; she feels closer to women and influenced by them, no doubt as a result of her close relationship with her mother. Also, she feels more at ease with women, perhaps due to her internment. In the camp, she says, women helped each other in a generous, unselfish way, which was not the case with men. And she adds that the capacity for resistance of the so-called weaker sex was much greater. (See Les hommes aussi s’en souviennent.) Veil’s own capacity for resistance helped her survive the camp; her unselfish desire to help others has brought better conditions for women and others who suffered persecution or disenfranchisement. Her career inspires awe at the extent of her contributions, especially given the obstacles she encountered and overcame, and she is remarkable for the openness, modesty and humility with which she fields questions and ponders the future of women in France, in Europe and in the world.
Adler, Laure. Les Femmes politiques. Paris: 1993.
An entry on Veil with some pertinent remarks and important quotes from Veil concerning antisemitism and misogyny that she has encountered. On the cover is the famous photograph of Veil with her head in her hands, exhausted and exasperated by the debate in the French Parliament in November 1974.
Szafran, Maurice. Simone Veil. Destin. Paris: 1994.
Excellent biographical resource. Written in a lively style, it also makes for enjoyable reading.
Veil, Simone. Les hommes aussi s’en souviennent. Une loi pour l’Histoire. Paris: 2004.
Her speech to Parliament on 26 November 1974, followed by an interview with Le Monde journalist Annick Cojean.
Documentary films concerning Simone Veil:
Un siècle au feminine, portrait de Simone Veil; de Giselle Halimi; de Benôite Groult. Laure Poinsot, dir. 2002
(Each segment, 16 min.) For information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Simone Veil, une histoire française. David Teboul, dir. 2005.
With support from France 3 and France 5 (see http://france3.fr).