On the Fourth of July the European Parliament took a moment to pay tribute to Simone Veil, the first female directly elected President of that Assembly in 1979. The eco that resounded after her death represents a stimulus to look at this woman’s life, and to highlight the central role that Veil had in the history of our Union.
Though having retired from the public political scene in 2007, Simone Veil still was one of the most admired public figures in France. As many newspapers reported, in 2014 a national survey indicated her as the most admired female personality in her home country. Some even pointed at Veil as an ideal candidate for the presidency of the Republic, but she always answered to these voices by saying that she was “too independent for such a role“, and that she didn’t see in herself the “ability to handle such a great power” – a clear example of how her sense of measure and responsibility made Veil one of the most appreciated figures.
Indeed, she certainly had to learn that sense of responsibility since quite a young age. Born on July 13, 1927, at the age of 16 she had to experience the horrors of World War Two: due to her Jewish origins, she was arrested in Nice in 1944, transferred in Germany with her mother Yvonne and her sister Madeleine, and then deported to the sorrowful camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Veil was tattooed with her identification number – 78561 – number that she brought on her arm until the very last days of her existence as a reminder of the war’s sufferings. Her father and brother where brought in a camp in Lithuania, from where they would have never come back. Yvonne would have died of typhus during the captivity. Simone and Madeleine have been the only survivors after the liberation by the Allies in April 1945. As she repeatedly reported, this experience intensively marked her entire life.
On that same year, she was able to return to France to start studying Law. As Guy Verhofstadt, leader of that liberal party to which Veil was so attached to, stated in the EP, “Though the rough experience that signed her childhood, Simone did not give space to any resentment towards Germany, inversely, she has always been in favour of reconciliation”. This sense of brotherly unity among all Europeans lighted her star among the most important European actors.
First woman to serve in 1970 as Secretary-General to the French High Council of the Judiciary, she was then appointed as Minister of Health under the Chirac and Barre cabinets, from 1974 to 1978, bringing her country to be the first western democracy to legalize abortion in 1975. In 1979 she makes the big jump, becoming the first female directly elected President of the European Parliament. The creation of a political Europe has always been one of her main missions, and even though at that time the strength of the EP was not the same of today, she made an incredible effort to incentivise the creation of a European public sphere where all citizens could have participated in terms of equity. “The union of Europe has reconciled me with the 20th century” she wrote on her biography, as an indication to all European citizens to seek our common roots instead of focussing on our diversities. Quite a forward-looking message related to our contemporary times.
By the end of her European mandate, in 1982, she followed accomplishing various duties: becoming a member of the French Constitutional Council in 1998; member of the European Reflection Group on the Spiritual and Cultural Dimension of Europe in 2002 together with other relevant figures as Krzysztof Michalski, Kurt Biedenkopf, Ioannis Petrou and Alberto Quadrio Curzio; and President of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah in 2007. In 2010, she reached a glorious goal: entering the Académie de France, the highest French language cultural institution. Finally, worth of mentioning is the support Veil gave, even at an old age, to many political causes as the 2013 Manif Pour Tous rally held in Paris.
Announcing her passing on June 30 was her son Jean, she would have turned 90 in a few weeks. Social medias were soon invaded of many showing their condolences, among which neo-President Macron, who tweeted “may her example inspire our countrymen, who will find in her the very best of France”, and Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, head of the American Jewish Committee in Paris, who wrote “immense sadness at the announcement of the death of Simon Veil, a model of courage for women, for commitment to France, and to Europe”. Political reactions also came from the EP President Antonio Tajani, who affirmed, “Europe loses a great woman and a protagonist in the Union’s history. Veil has given a strong contribution to unity and to the strengthening of the democratic institutions. Her teachings must inspire us and make us do more to ensure there is no discrimination towards women within Europe and in the world”.
Her official funeral ceremony will take place on Wednesday, July 5th, in the complex of Les Invalides, nonetheless, we would like to remember her by quoting Veil’s words in one of her last public appearances in 2010: “Let me re-evoke an ambition to which I dedicated a large part of my life: Europe – the Europe that the founding fathers have been targeting after the war so that no more fratricide conflicts may have happened”.