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In June 2017, France lost Simone Veil, one of the most important figures in the long battle for women’s rights. Little-known outside the French-speaking world, Veil, who died at the age of 89 from natural causes, was a Holocaust survivor who gained fame– and the ire of many– for helping to pass legislation in France that granted women reproductive rights, including the right to abortion. With a long, illustrious career as a stateswoman and politician, Veil served for many years as the Minister of Health under two separate administrations. In between, she was the first president to be elected to the European Parliament.
Born in 1927 in Nice to a Jewish family, Veil and her family were arrested in 1944 and deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, before being transferred to Bergen-Belsen. Her mother, father and brother all perished in the camps; the young Simone survived.
A fierce and visible advocate for keeping the memory of the Shoah alive, Veil was the first president of the Fondation pour la mémoire de la Shoah, a Paris- based foundation that works to do just that.
A Feminist Icon in France…and Beyond
In 1975– only 30 years after women had gained the right to vote following the end of World War II, Simone Veil was the newly appointed Minister of Health under then-Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. After helping to pass a pro-contraception law in her first year in office, she was instrumental in elaborating a piece of then-radical legislation, known to this day as the “Loi Veil”, to grant women the right to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy.
The controversial legislation stirred roiling debates in France, and Veil and her family endured vicious attacks. Nevertheless, she persisted— and the law granting women the right to seek abortions was passed in 1975.
Burial at the Pantheon, France’s (Mostly Masculine) Mausoleum
Veil is also one of only five women to be buried at the Pantheon, that hulking, rather explicitly patriarchal, neoclassical mausoleum that cuts an imposing figure atop a hill in the Quartier Latin. The Nobel Prize-winning chemist Marie Curie also laid to rest there, alongside 76 men.
Of course, on the rare occasions on which a woman has been buried here, someone inevitably points out the cringe-worthiness of the words in gold capital lettering inscribed on the facade: “AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE” (The Nation is Grateful to Great Men). It’s tempting to wonder when someone will go, casting aside accusations of political correctness, and alter it so that it instead reads “GRANDS HUMAINS” (Great Humans). Considering that in French, “human rights” translates to “les droits de l’homme” — literally, the rights of man, it’s a semantic distinction that’s unlikely to be recognized as important.
Still, Veil’s presence there has considerable symbolic weight. The newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron presided over a ceremony held at the Pantheon in early July to commemorate Veil and bury her remains at the mausoleum. He said the ceremony was meant to show “the immense gratitude of the French people to one of its most loved children”, according to the BBC.
“You have given our lives the light you had in you and which nothing or nobody was able to extinguish,” Mr Macron added, alluding, most likely, to Veil’s past as a survivor of the Shoah.
One thing seems fairly certain: Veil’s legacy will continue to inspire new generations of young French women who might be considering a career in politics. And that’s something that’s sorely needed: while France’s National Assembly counted its highest percentage ever of women– 38.7% in 2017– the country has never elected a woman to its highest political offices (President and Prime Minister).
As Veil knew herself, nothing budges on that front without a hard and determined fight. “We invent the future through our imagination”, she once said.