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Holocaust survivor Simone Veil joins Académie Française

Video by Mark THOMPSON

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2010-12-19

Simone Veil, revered French champion of women's rights and Auschwitz survivor, has been invested as an "immortal" of the prestigious Académie Française.

What is the AcadÉmie FranÇaise?

The Académie Française was given official status by Cardinal Richelieu in 1639.

It has always been essentially a linguistic jury whose role it is to make decisions on how French should be used, with the aim of making the language "pure, eloquent, and capable of dealing with Art and Science".

There are 40 members, elected by their peers and who hold the position for life. Becoming one of the “immortals”, as its members are known, is considered one of France’s highest intellectual honours.

Members have included Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Eugène Ionesco, Joseph Kessel, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Simone Veil became only the sixth female member in 2010.

“Immortals” wear a uniform that includes a ceremonial sword as well as the French national motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraterité” and the European Union's, “United in Diversity”.

Simone Veil, revered French champion of women's rights and Auschwitz survivor, was on Thursday invested as an "immortal" of France’s most prestigious intellectual club, the Académie Française.

The solemn ceremony was attended by two former heads of state and the current French president.

The 82-year-old former French minister ranks among the country's most respected politicians and is famous for legalising abortion in the 70s.

The battle to pass the law, which bears her name, was against bitter and impassioned opposition and cemented her reputation as the country’s most celebrated proponent of women’s rights.

At the investiture ceremony at the Académie in Paris, and wearing the members' traditional green uniform (designed for her by Chanel), Veil was presented with the ceremonial sword bearing the inscription "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity".

The sword also carries the number – 78651 – which was tattooed on her arm when she arrived at Auschwitz.

Veil is the sixth woman in the Academy’s 371-year history (see box) to join the institution’s “immortals” as they are known in France.

‘Nothing short of a temple to the French language’

Born Simone Jacob in Nice in southern France, Veil was deported to Auschwitz by the Nazis in 1944 with her family. Both of her parents and her brother died in internment.

In her speech Thursday before a distinguished audience that included the other 39 “immortals” as well as French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former French presidents, Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Veil spoke of her love of the French language and invoked her Holocaust experience.

“My mother, who vanished in the hell of Bergen-Belsen a few days before it was liberated, revered the French language,” said a visibly moved Veil. “Even more than I am right now, she would have been dazzled that her daughter would be here today to take the seat that had once belonged to [17th century French writer] Racine.”

Reporting from the Académie Française shortly after the ceremony, FRANCE 24’s correspondent Melissa Bell said the venerable institution is “nothing short of a temple to the French language”.

She added that for Veil, “one of the reasons that she accepted to present her candidature is that only five women have been members, compared to 708 men. For this champion of women’s rights, this was the clinching argument.”

A lawyer by training, Veil served as France’s Minister of Health from 1974 to 1979 in the governments of Prime Ministers Jacques Chirac and Raymond Barre.

During this time she made access to contraception easier for women and passed her landmark abortion law overcoming huge opposition in the male-dominated National Assembly.

Veil was elected as an MEP in 1979, becoming its first elected president and the first woman president since the parliament was created in 1952.

Date created : 2010-03-18