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France Honors The Memory Of Simone Veil, 'A Light That No One Could Extinguish'

French lawyer and politician Simon Veil, the Minister of Health, addresses the French Senate about abortion on Dec. 13, 1974.
Keystone/Hulton Archive
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French lawyer and politician Simon Veil, the Minister of Health, addresses the French Senate about abortion on Dec. 13, 1974.

France paid homage to Holocaust survivor and humanist icon Simone Veil Wednesday in a somber, nationally televised ceremony at Les Invalides, Paris' 17th century military monument.

Dignitaries from across France and Europe stood as Veil's flag-draped casket was carried across the cobblestones and a military band played Chopin's funeral march.

Veil, who fought for the rights of women and defended the weak and vulnerable, is considered a moral force of the 20th century.

Since her death on June 30 at age 89, Veil's face has graced the cover of countless French magazines, and television networks have aired documentaries about her life.

President Emmanuel Macron, who organized Wednesday's ceremony, said Veil had an interior compass that always indicated the just and moral way.

Simone Jacob was born on July 13, 1927, into a secular Jewish family in Nice. In 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz, along with her parents, a sister and a brother. Her parents and brother would never return.

After surviving the horrors of the death camps, Veil went back to France, where she studied law and went on to become a major force in her country's political life.

As minister of health in 1974, Veil steered a contentious bill through the National Assembly to legalize abortion, bearing the brunt of a visceral battle over abortion in a majority-Catholic country. Today, the "Veil Law," and the right to obtain an abortion, are considered a fundamental underpinning of women's rights in France.

In a famous speech in November 1974 before a National Assembly composed almost entirely of men, Veil saidFrance could no longer close its eyes "to the 300,000 abortions that each year mutilate the women of this country, trample on its laws and humiliate or traumatise those who undergo them."

She said no woman seeks an abortion with a light heart. "It's always traumatic," said Veil. She said abortion must be the last resort and remain an exception, but it must be legal.

During the 25-hour debate that followed her speech, Veil was subjected to insults. But she was able to convince a majority of lawmakers that it was necessary.

Because of her firsthand experience with the horrors of war, Veil became an ardent supporter of a unified Europe. Those who knew her say she never spoke badly of the Germans.

Simone Veil leaves the Institut de France with her son Jean in 2010.
Christophe Ena / AP
Simone Veil leaves the Institut de France with her son Jean in 2010.

In her 2007 memoir, Une Vie ("A Life"), Veil says she realized that good and bad dwell in each of us and either can be evoked, depending on the circumstances. Veil said her mother's dying words stayed with her: "Never wish bad for others, we know too well what that means."

Veil was elected to the European Parliament and served as its president for three years — the first woman in that position. She was a member of the Academie Française, the esteemed guardian of French language and culture.

Veil's suffering did not stop with the end of the war. She never got over the loss of her parents and brother. And she returned to a country that did not want to hear about victimhood. It would be decades before French society would freely talk about the Holocaust and the role played by France's wartime Vichy government in deporting tens of thousands of Jews.

"There was no one to listen to us," Veil wrote in her memoir. "We were confronted with indifference or the inability of those close to us to hear of our suffering."

In a tribute to Veil, the news magazine Le Point wrote: "Veil went from the infernal noise of the camps to a deafening silence."

So she filled her life with studies and a career, marriage and three sons. Antoine Veil, her husband of 67 years, was a politician and businessman who died in 2013.

Two of her sons spoke at the ceremony, remembering their mother with tenderness and admiration. "Your beauty was accompanied by an extreme reserve," Jean Veil said. He said the indelible tragedy that lived within his mother from such a young age was no doubt the reason for her reserve in an era of youthful openness — though that reserve was not always on display.

"I forgive you for emptying a jug of water over my head because of a remark you considered misogynistic," he said.

In his eulogy, Macron said France was a better nation because of Veil.

"You shined your light into our lives," he said, "a light that no one could extinguish. And the French people understood this."

Macron said France will never forget Simone Veil. She will be laid to rest along with her husband in the Pantheon — the Paris mausoleum reserved for the country's most distinguished citizens.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: July 5, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly gave Simone Veil's first name as Simon.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.