Grande dame of politics leaves legacy of rights

French politician, Académie Française member and Auschwitz survivor Simone Veil, who died on June 30, aged 89, is to be buried in the Panthéon, a homage paid to France’s greatest citizens

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Simone Veil, hailed by President Macron for her “dazzling victories which no one else could have carried off”, is to be buried in the Panthéon in homage to a life well spent fighting for people’s rights.

Known especially for championing legal abortion, Mrs Veil will rest alongside husband Antoine, a civil servant, politician and entrepreneur, whom she married in 1946.

Born to secular-minded Jewish parents in Nice in 1927, Simone was deported to Auschwitz aged 16 and lost her parents and brother to the Nazi camps.

She was liberated by British troops in 1945 and found she had passed the Baccalauréat exam she had taken just before leaving. After studies in politics and law in Paris, she entered the civil service and politics, where she became known for her courage and convictions. She was appointed to the Académie Française in 2010.

The decision of a Panthéon burial was made public at the end of a speech by the president, who paid tribute to her following testimonials from her sons.

It had been called for by many and the decision was made along with the family of Mrs Veil. She was known for her contributions to human rights and to the EU, and especially to rights of women including as health minister championing the 1975 law which legalised abortion in France, known as the Loi Veil.

Speaking in the courtyard of Les Invalides at an official ceremony of homage, with military honours, Presi­dent Macron said her life “never ceased to astonish us”, and spoke of her “drive towards that which is right and good” and “indefatigable energy”. He said she had embodied “what we call la grandeur”.

“She led one struggle after another – struggles of our time,” he said, listing efforts for political refugees from Algeria, the “sordid conditions” of back street abortions and “social hypocrisy” before the Loi Veil, and her “combats for Europe” as an MEP and the first elected president of the European Parliament. She was also involved with the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the UN, he said. He said she supported a “European dream” of peace and liberty and that those close to her say she “never said a bitter thing about the Germans or Germany”.

“You gave gifts to our old nation that made it more beautiful,” Mr Macron said. She was also president of a foundation for remembrance of the Holocaust, and “never let anything be forgotten,” he added.

He said she stood up for what she thought was right, often on subjects that did not have support from the majority or public opinion, at first. She often faced hatred and insults that hurt her but did not knock her down. She shook up the existing order and used her own suffering to help others. “She was tough with the powerful, but gentle with the weak. She didn’t defend women because they were women, but because they were humiliated by the power of men.”

Her son Pierre-François Veil said growing up the family got used to “sharing you with millions of strangers” who saw Mrs Veil as a “second mother.” He called the homage “your ultimate victory against the death camps”, adding that the many kind messages they had received had been “rays of sun, bursts of happiness”.

His brother Jean told how their mother told them bit by bit of the horrors of the war, which had not been taught in school: being taken in a cattle truck, the cruelty of the SS, being tattooed like a piece of merchandise; how they had their hair shaved and how they could smell the stench from the ovens. It was designed to dehumanise, she had said - and on coming home she had felt she had to learn how to read again.

He spoke of his mother’s strong character, “an armour that had allowed her to survive hell” and jokingly forgave her for having once poured a jug of water over his head at the dinner table “for having said something she found misogynous”.

Medic recalls ‘bad old days’ of early 70s

Simone Veil said abortion “must remain the exception” and “a last resort” but she also told parliament that it was “enough to listen to women” because “no woman does it with gladness of heart” and “it is always a tragic event”.

The law she succeeded in having passed allowed abortion on the request of the woman, up until 10 weeks of pregnancy (a more recent law raised the time to 12 weeks). It also covered ‘medical’ abortion, which can be done at any time should doctors deem it necessary.

The president of doctors’ union Fédération des Médecins de France, Jean-Paul Hamon, remembers how different it was before. “We were regularly confronted by the problem of abortion. It was known as ‘criminal abortion’ and doctors found to have done it were struck off for life.”

It was not generally allowed even for medical reasons – and as there was no ultrasound, it was not possible to do a prenatal diagnosis, so one waited for labour and hoped for the best.

There were certain strategies for those willing to use them, he said. He advised patients to go to Holland. “Women took the coach at the Porte de Clignancourt in the evening and travelled overnight with an address for a clinic where they could have an abortion – with minimal anaesthetic – and come home the same day. The clinic checked they weren’t bleeding heavily… but it was very difficult and tiring for them, and expensive and obviously not reimbursed.”

The wealthy went to Swiss clinics and there were said to be certain addresses in the UK.

Medical students would sometimes ‘help out’ friends in a ‘DIY’, unofficial capacity, he said.

“I met many women who were sterile due to infections after abortions by backstreet abortionists – known as les faiseurs d’ange (angel makers). Other women told us they’d done it themselves, with knitting needles.”

It was often no better for women who went through with unwanted pregnancies. “Single mothers were excluded, rejected by society, the poor women,” he said.

Dr Hamon said at the time of the Loi Veil debates in 1974 the issue did not cause large street protests. “But a number of fundamentalist Catholics went on for a long time protesting outside maternity wards where abortions took place. I remember at the Béclère hospital, which was reputed for maternity care and where they had the first French ‘test-tube baby’, there were various agitated people, some in cassocks, who would come and threaten, even physically, people coming in. It was quite violent, though we didn’t have shootings like in the USA.

“And the atmosphere when the law was presented was difficult, especially as the right-wing majority was opposed to it. Two-thirds of the right-wing MPs voted against it.

“The words spoken in the parliament were very hard on Simone Veil – people accused her of being a Nazi, she who had come out of the camps, or spoke of a Final Solution. I think what carried it was that Jacques Chirac, who was prime minister, did not abandon her. He was against abortion but did not publically take a position and he defended Simone Veil’s law.

“The law passed thanks to the Socialists and Communists and some of the MPs of the right.”

And today... what remains to be done?

Many legal battles have been won, says the president of the feminist movement Ni Putes Ni Sou­mises (NPNS), Stéphanie Rameau – but the fight goes on to maintain and build on this.

“In terms of major feminist struggles that remain, for NPNS in any case, it’s the fight against violence because women are still massively victims of all kinds of violence, whether domestic, rape, harassment etc.

“The key is to fight against stereotypes and discriminations and there should be better systems of help for victims, with more shelters, and the justice system must be quicker to help. Too often victims see their cases closed, or they don’t obtain a just decision and then feel a victim twice over.

“Also if what has already been voted for was applied properly, and more resources were allocated, it would make a huge difference.”

In working class areas there is also a need to fight against closed-mindedness and sectarianism, she said. “We see a resurgence of reactionary attitudes of various types and while rights have been acquired we have a feeling they could easily be taken away. We need a universalist feminism: secularism allows for equality of rights and opportunities between citizens, male or female, and they must not be variable depending on your origins or religion or lack of one.”

The government must also make sure working class districts are not marginalised and are fully included in the values of the Republic.

“We should give more help to women in precarious situations, to take control of their lives and have choices,” Ms Rameau said. Women are more likely than men to be in single parent households and many are unemployed or working several jobs in different places and at unsocial hours, for low salaries – with knock-on effects on their health and children. “Emergency grants to help such women would be good. For example, a woman who is a victim of domestic violence and is unemployed and needs to leave the family home, if she hasn’t the means to support herself and her children, she can’t leave. So there should be emergency aid available from the CAF, and that doesn’t take months to obtain.”

“Otherwise it’s more a question of difficulty of application than of new laws – on unequal pay, for example, the law is there, but few women dare to complain because they’re afraid to lose their jobs.

“But our biggest priority is changing mentalities. Legally, patriarchy ended in 1970 in favour of shared parenting responsibilities. The father isn’t any more the all-powerful head of the family, but it can take generations for mentalities to change.

“But that won’t happen if communities turn in on themselves so we must listen to young people and women from the working class areas, and help them to take their place in the public arena.”

Ms Rameau added that although she sees women’s suffering every day through her job, she is proud to be French and sees “opportunities wide open for me”.

“All I want for all girls is that they have control over their bodies and have choices in their lifestyles and studies. We too often forget that our bodies and our choices belong to us and not to other people around us.”

Simone Veil can be an inspiring model, she said, who should not be reduced only to her role in the abortion law. “She showed the way.”

Ms Rameau welcomed the appointment of a gender-balanced ministerial team but said she is waiting to see what measures are proposed by the minister for equality between women and men.

Key dates for women's rights

  • 1850 Communes of 800+ residents must have a primary school for girls
  • 1881 Women allowed their own savings account
  • 1884 Divorce allowed, on strict conditions
  • 1907 Married women can spend salaries as they wish
  • 1908 Divorce allowed on the request of both parties, after three years of separation
  • 1909 8 weeks of unpaid maternity leave allowed
  • 1920 Women primary teachers paid the same as men
  • 1924 Girls and boys study for the same Baccalauréat
  • 1932 Family allowance
  • 1944 Vote for women
  • 1946 Equality between men and women in constitution
  • 1965 Women can work without their husbands’ permission
  • 1967 Using contraception legal (reimbursed from 1974)
  • 1970 Husband no longer legally the head of the family
  • 1971 Equal pay for equal work
  • 1974 Divorce made easier
  • 1975 Loi Veil on abortion.
  • 1990 Marital rape recognised
  • 1992 Law on domestic violence and sexual harassment at work
  • 2000 Law favouring men/women parity in politics