Simone Veil, A Woman of the Century

The recent film by Olivier Dahan ‘Simone, Le Voyage du Siècle’

Simone Veil, iconic figure of the 20th century and a role model for millions, died on June 30th, 2017. She is back in the news once more after the release of  Olivier Dahan’s  film, Simone, le voyage du siecle,  in which she is portrayed by two actresses, Rebecca Marder, (young Simone) and Elsa Zylberstein, (Simone aged 36 to 87). Both are excellent, but it is Zylberstein who is remarkable through her physical and psychological reincarnation of her character. The actress immersed herself in the role for a year, putting on 9 kilos, walking like Veil, talking like her, reading what she’d written.

‘I wanted her soul to be at my side,’ she explained (‘je voulais que son âme m’accompagne’).

Watching the film last week reminded me just how much a sorely fractured France, indeed a sorely fractured world, needs leaders of her stature. In a reminder of what she achieved, I’m reposting below extracts from the blog I wrote shortly after her death: Portrait of a great lady, July 13th 2017.


‘Nous vous aimons, Madame.’

With three simple words, ‘we love you’, Jean D’Ormesson, in 2010, welcomed Simone Veil to the ‘temple of the French language’, the Académie Française. On June 30th  this year, as news of her death broke in France, his sentiment was echoed in the tributes of an entire nation. In a world of political tarnish, Simone Veil gleamed gold. She was respected, adored, revered even. In the outpouring of emotion on June 30th, many said they were ‘in mourning’ for one who will remain ‘immortal’.

Who was this extraordinary woman with an extraordinary destiny, a woman who, for the space of a few days, achieved the miracle of uniting a country renowned for its bitter quarrels and divisions? The woman whose beauty left admirers lost for words, and who, with one look from her turquoise eyes could make grown men tremble and inspire adoration in those who had lost hope?

We all need role models, examples, people who set a standard, who inspire us to do our best. Heroes and heroines. Open any magazine and you’ll see the latest contenders. Personalities from the world of arts and culture, from popular entertainment. How many come from the world of politics? And how many will stand the test of time?

The Panthéon, in Paris, is the resting place for many who have left their imprint on French history: Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Jean Jaurès, Marie Curie, Jean Moulin…Simone Veil, who, growing up as Simone Jacob, youngest of four children in a secular Jewish family living in Nice, could hardly have imagined that one day she would be laid to rest in their company, an inspiration for both men and women, a true French heroine.

Back in 2010, in the solemn ceremony marking the election of a new member to one of France’s most august institutions, the Académie Française, Veil, like those before her, wore the traditional costume of the Academy, ‘l’habit vert’, and carried the traditional sword. But her sword was engraved with a number: 78651. It was the number tattooed on her left arm in April 15th 1944 when she arrived at the extermination camp of Auschwitz Birkenau. She was 16. Although she would survive and go on to become a great stateswoman in the country from which she was deported, her mother Yvonne, her brother Jean, and father André, would never return to their homeland. They were part of the six million murdered simply because they were Jews.

Two striking characteristics of Simone Veil were her humanity and her passion for justice. In her lucid and moving biography, Une Vieshe says that her experience as a deportee gave her ‘an acute sensitivity to everything that, in our human relations with one another, leads to the humiliation and abasement of others.’ This awareness gave her a special perspective which rejected all extremes and aimed at reconciliation between often contradictory concepts. Nicolas Sarkozy, protégé and close friend, described her as ‘adhering to no ideology, having paid too high a price herself for the madness of ideologues.’ In a TV interview she talked about ‘being on the left’ for some issues, ‘on the right’ for others. She was a traditionalist who believed in progress, a woman whose past was overshadowed by tragedy but who looked to the future with hope; in the words of D’Ormesson ‘la tradition même, et la modernité incarnée’ (the embodiment of tradition, and the incarnation of modernity).

Recalling that first terrible day at Auschwitz, she describes how she, her mother, and sister Milou, along with other women, were herded into the showers, then dumped onto benches, naked, while the ‘kapos’ paraded up and down in front of them, laughing, making humiliating comments and prodding their bare flesh like housewives inspecting meat at the butcher’s. ‘We were comic figures for a jeering audience.’ In an image which conveys the nightmare of those hours, Veil writes it was like ‘the horror of suddenly finding yourself in a medieval painting, one of those where you are in the group of people who have fallen into hell.’

She never forgot the smell of the camp–‘fetid, made up of rot and mud and the smell of the smoke from the crematorium…We lived enveloped in the permanent stench of burning’. What impression must all of this have made on a young girl who grew up ‘in a paradise’, breathing the perfumed air and sea breezes of Nice, vibrant  capital of the Riviera?

The beautiful baie des anges, Nice, seen from the colline du château

As they were stripped of their possessions by the guards, one of her friends hung on to a small bottle of perfume. ‘They’re going to take it,’ she said. ‘But I’m not going to give it to them.’ And the young women splashed themselves from head to toe in Lanvin’s famous perfume, Arpège, a last gesture of defiant femininity before they would have to put on the rags of the dispossessed. That perfume remained Veil’s favourite, worn until she died.

How did she, and others like her, manage not just to survive such a hell, but to find a way to go on afterwards, more victors than victims?

Writing about the carefree ‘joie de vivre’ of her childhood, the warmth and unity of family life, her education in civic, republican values, Simone Veil concludes ‘we received the best arms with which to face life.’ Elsewhere she talks about the human capacity to preserve the will to live. Her mother, who died of typhus on the death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen one month before the liberation of the camps, remained a role model for her daughter. ‘She was,’ she says, ‘good and generous…’ Simone was younger, harder, more of a rebel. She defended her mother from those who tried to steal her food and, on the terrible march through the snow, from those who tried to hang on to her for support. She only remembers crying twice, once when she was reprimanded by Milou, the second time when she found out her other sister, Denise, a member of the Resistance, was still alive, a survivor of Ravensbrück.

The flint and the fire. It was this toughness and this baptism of fire that reinforced the ideals that would guide her through life, a respect for others and their differences, and a desire to create a better world where what she and millions had suffered would never be repeated. She would demonstrate time after time in her future career that her aim was not to please, not to follow a party-political line, but to listen to her conscience. And in a life of battles, the year 1974 would stand out, as she prepared one of the most controversial laws in French history.

But that was still in the future. In 1945 Simone Jacob returned to France where she discovered with bewilderment that many simply did not want to talk about what had happened. Even worse was the reaction in some quarters that, because she and other had survived, this was obvious proof that ‘things weren’t as bad as all that’ in the camps. For months she experienced a feeling of unreality and disconnection. Fortunately she was soon to meet the man she married, and who would remain her rock and companion for 67 years, Antoine Veil, who died in 2013, the same year that saw the death of her sister Denise. With Antoine she founded a family, and after the birth of her third son, took the decision to return to her studies and a future career. The Simone of legend was on the move.

Her initial fight, after becoming a magistrate, was to obtain better conditions for prisoners. But as she rose through the ranks to the post of Minister of Health in the government of Giscard D’Estaing, she approached the first of the truly important battles that would stand out as landmarks in her personal career and in the history of France.

The country was changing. It had gone through the social upheaval of May 1968; the women’s movement was gaining momentum. In 1971, a shock manifesto hit the pages of Le Nouvel Observateur. Written by Simone De Beauvoir, it was signed by 343 women who all admitted to having had abortions. Their aim was to pressurise the government into legalising a risky procedure undertaken every year by thousands of women, those unable to afford the price of a legal abortion abroad. In 1972 events took an even more dramatic turn when human rights lawyer Gisèle Halimi defended a 16-year-old girl charged with having an illegal abortion after being raped by one of her schoolmates.

Something had to be done. Giscard, and his Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, knew the topic was highly controversial for the majority of their party members. Who to entrust with the unpopular job of trying to change the law?

‘We can no longer close our eyes to the 300, 000 abortions which, every year, mutilate the women of this country’. These were Simone Veil’s words to a packed National Assembly consisting of 481 male deputies and 9 females on November 26, 1974.

There followed a marathon debate of unprecedented violence lasting three days and two nights. Melodramatic speeches and demonstrations took place. A recording of the heartbeats of a foetus was passed round the chamber, with the prophecy that the law, if passed, would produce twice as many victims every year as the bomb on Hiroshima. Veil herself was subjected to abuse and insults with references to embryos ‘thrown into ovens’, abattoirs piled with the corpses of ‘little men’, ‘Nazi barbarity’ and even ‘genocide’.  She was insulted in the street, her children were threatened and her home and car daubed with swastikas.

Simone Veil addressing the Assemblée Nationale

Yet she continued to plead her case with unflagging courage and lucidity. ‘No woman undertakes an abortion lightly,’ she told the Assembly. Refusing to descend to the level of insults of her opponents, she reiterated her faith in the younger generation: ‘they are courageous, capable of enthusiasm and sacrifices like anyone else. Let us put our trust in them…’

The ordeal took its toll. In a 2004 interview she admits she never imagined being the object of such intense hatred, and one famous clip shows her with her head in her hands. For many, however, the enduring image of that time is of an erect, dignified figure in trademark Chanel suit and pearls, hair swept back in an impeccable chignon, looking for all the world like the person she was, a wife, a mother, a member of the middle classes, ‘la tradition même’ yet, at the same time, ‘la modernité incarnée.’

On November 29th, 1974, the Loi Veil was adopted by 284 votes to 189. Bloody, but unbowed, Madame la Ministre could breathe for a while before getting caught up in the two other major tasks that awaited her: the vital preservation of the past, a memorial to the Holocaust, the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, of which she would be president for five years, and the creation of the new: the re-unification of Europe, and Franco-German reconciliation.

In Une Vie she writes that she never got over her mother’s death. ‘Every day she is with me, and what I have done is thanks to her.’ In 1945, as Yvonne lay dying, she said ‘Ne veuillez jamais de mal aux autres, nous savons trop ce que c’est’ (never wish harm to others, we know only too well what that is). When, in 1979, Simone Veil was elected first President of the brand new European Parliament, it was the memory of her mother that spurred her to battle for the dignity and freedom of future generations, and their right to a world of ‘never again’.

Her disappearance comes at a time when the European dream has dimmed for many initially carried along by the wave of optimism she symbolised in 1979. On the wider political scene, with its posturing narcissists and vulgar brawlers, it’s hard to think of anyone who comes near the standards set for more than half a century by this modest woman, number 78651, who once said ‘I have the feeling that, the day I die, my last thoughts will be of the Holocaust.’ In the moving eulogy given by her son, Pierre-François, he recounts that her last word to those gathered by her bedside was ‘Merci.’

On social media following her death a prayer was taken up by hundreds of voices: ‘Simone Veil sur nous’ (Veil being pronounced the same way as the word ‘veille’ = watch over).

‘Simone, watch over us.’

This blog was written in memory of Simone Veil, and the victims in the attack on her native city of Nice, July 14th 2016.


Afterword, July 30th 2023

Early this month, in Veil’s beloved country, a week of unbelievable violence laid bare a fractured society: those who love France and those who hate it.  A year earlier, in the USA, the Historic Roe V Wade was reversed, bringing the question of women’s rights to abortion back to the table. In the UK and elsewhere, the very concept of womanhood has been challenged, with attempts to remove the word ‘woman’ itself and replace it by insulting and demeaning alternatives.  In a topsy-turvy world, brave women and their supportive menfolk in Iran are ready to defy the morality police and die for freedom, while in France, the country of human rights, attempts to impose rules on the way women dress and behave are increasing. Also in France, as elsewhere, anti-semitism is on the rise, but again in this Alice in Wonderland universe, the traditional culprits – extreme right political parties and ultra conservative Catholics – have been replaced by far Left ideologues and hardline Islamists.

Memorial to the Shoah defaced, ‘morts aux juifs’ heard during riots in Nanterre July 2023

Meanwhile the vision of a harmonious ‘United States of Europe’ dear to the heart of its first parliamentary president and many who believed in that dream has been tarnished by greed and corruption  while the vexed question of sovereignty – national versus ‘pooled’ , one of the contributory factors to Brexit, is also causing tensions between Brussels and eastern nations who remember only too well the years of Soviet hegemony when they had no sovereignty at all.

Is all of this depressing?

The Voltairean sceptic bashing out these words is ready to say ‘sauve qui peut’.  The foolish Romantic proofreader looking forward to a G and T in the garden with the MDM and the nightingale is more optimistic, remembering what Veil said about ‘ordinary people’.

Simone Veil, President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah, returns to Auschwitz

In a ceremony held at the Pantheon in Paris in 2007, in homage to ‘les Justes’ of France (the ‘Righteous among the nations’ –  non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust), Simone Veil gave a moving address, expressing the respect, affection and gratitude of all who owed their lives to ‘ordinary people’.

Many, she said, of such ‘ordinary people’ were unknown, had died, or didn’t want to be recognised for what they had done. While in the Netherlands and Greece, 80 percent of the Jewish population were arrested and exterminated, three quarters of French Jews would avoid capture.

‘I am convinced,’ she said, ‘that there will always be men and women, of all origins and in all countries, who are capable of the best…I would like to believe that moral force and individual conscience can prevail… These walls will forever resound to the echo of your voices, you, the Righteous of France who give us reason to hope.’

Amen to that.

Detail from a drawing by Gordon Seward, property of the author, copyright Gordon Seward
Detail from a drawing by Gordon Seward, property of the author, copyright Gordon Seward