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‘A compass in troubled times’: France honours Simone Veil with Panthéon burial

Ludovic Marin, AFP | A Holocaust survivor, Simone Veil is only the fifth woman to be laid to rest in the Panthéon.

France paid homage on Sunday to Simone Veil, a revered Holocaust survivor who championed the 1975 law legalising abortion in France, as she became only the fifth woman to join the nation’s heroes interred in the Panthéon in Paris.


Veil, a passionate Europhile who was the first woman to head the European Parliament, was laid to rest with her husband Antoine in the crypt of the Panthéon mausoleum, a year and a day after her death aged 89.

Under a suitably Europe-blue sky, large crowds lined the streets of central Paris to watch the cortege carrying the caskets of the Veil couple from the Shoah Memorial, on the Right Bank of the River Seine, to the vast domed structure that dominates the Left Bank.

Huguette, Anne and Judith, three generations of the Lévy family, were among the first to turn out in the early morning sunlight to pay tribute to the iconic politician and champion of women’s rights.

“As a former nurse, I met many women who had no other option but to undergo clandestine abortions, and it wasn’t pretty,” said Huguette, 71, adding: “So I know what women in this country owe Mrs Veil.”

Simone Veil addresses protesters outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg on March 25, 1980.
Simone Veil addresses protesters outside the European Parliament in Strasbourg on March 25, 1980. Dominique Faget, AFP

Her daughter Anne, 42, said it was the Holocaust survivor’s lifelong dedication to European unity, and postwar reconciliation between France and Germany, that inspired her the most.

“After all the suffering Veil endured, it gives you an idea of what a remarkable woman she was,” she said. Pointing to her seven-year-old daughter, she added: “It was important to have three generations of women here today -- my daughter is witnessing a historic moment.”

A lifetime of hardship and defiance

As one of the more than 76,000 Jews deported from France during World War II, Veil appears on the Wall of Names at the Shoah Memorial, under her maiden name Simone Jacob. So do her father André, her mother Yvonne, her sister Madeleine and her brother Jean. Of the five, only Madeleine and Simone survived the ordeal, though Madeleine would die in a car crash shortly after the war.

Veil's experience inspired a lifelong dedication to peace, Franco-German reconciliation, and European integration, culminating in her appointment as the European Parliament’s first female president in 1979.

>> Read more: At mausoleum for France's 'Great Men', Simone Veil burial is most revolutionary yet

In France, Veil is best remembered as a tireless crusader for women's rights. She notably strove to improve women's conditions in French jails and, during the Algerian War of Independence, obtained the transfer to France of Algerian female prisoners amid reports of widespread abuse and rape.

Later successes included pushing for gender parity in matters of parental control and adoption rights. But her defining achievement, secured as health minister in 1975, was the law legalising abortion in France, which she pushed through a parliament composed almost exclusively of men, withstanding a deluge of sexist and anti-Semitic abuse.

The health minister addresses France's National Assembly on November 26, 1974, defending her bill to legalise abortion in France.
The health minister addresses France's National Assembly on November 26, 1974, defending her bill to legalise abortion in France. AFP file photo

Veil’s legacy owed much to the dignity with which she weathered that storm. A model of composure, she would go on to become one of France’s most popular and trusted figures.

A compass in troubled times

“France loves Simone Veil and loves her for her struggles,” said French President Emmanuel Macron in a speech marking her induction into the Paris mausoleum.

We wanted Simone Veil to enter the Panthéon without waiting for generations to pass so that her battles, her dignity and her hope remain a compass in these troubled times,” Macron said, adding that the memory of all those who were deported on racial grounds during the war would enter the mausoleum with her.

Among them was Ginette Kolinka, who met and befriended Veil in the horror of Auschwitz.

“She represents all the people who were deported, particularly those who didn’t make it back,” Kolinka said.

The Holocaust survivor, who regularly meets school groups to raise awareness of the danger of racial hatred, as Veil did for years, said it was normal for her late friend to be honoured with a Panthéon burial.

“We had a funeral procession for [rockstar] Johnny Hallyday on the Champs Elysées,” she quipped. “So she certainly deserves this much.”

Kolinka added: “It’s good that we talk about this at a time of mounting racism and anti-Semitism. I hope young people realise where this hatred can lead to.”

‘She honours us all’

Attending Sunday’s ceremony were pupils from schools across the country, invited by the Elysée Palace.

They included 10-year-old Bilal, from the Paris suburb of Bondy, who remembered “those deported and killed during the war”, his classmate Lou, who praised Veil’s “courage” and “her fight for women’s rights”, and Eloïse, a high school student in the French capital, who thanked Veil for “all that she did for France”.

Like the rest of the crowd outside the Panthéon, they looked on in awe as the pallbearers carried the coffins of the Veil couple up the rue Soufflot, taking the tiniest of steps in unison, to the tune of the “Song of the Deported” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”.

Street artists from the collective "Merci Simone" set up a poster in Paris, on June 28, 2018.
Street artists from the collective "Merci Simone" set up a poster in Paris, on June 28, 2018. Thomas Samson, AFP

The sombre but poignant ceremony was wrapped up by a minute of silence and a stirring rendition of the Marseillaise, by US soprano Barbara Hendricks.

The caskets will lie in state until Monday, before Simone and Antoine Veil are taken to their final resting place in the sixth vault of the Panthéon, alongside Jean Moulin, the French Resistance hero, and Jean Monnet, the founding father of the European Union.

Veil's tomb will be engraved with the number 78651, the five digits her jailors tattooed on her forearm in the inferno of Auschwitz, which she never removed.

"Today I'm deeply moved and proud,” said Marceline Loridan-Ivens, Veil’s longtime friend, as she walked out of the Panthéon after one last farewell. “A girl of Birkenau has now found a place in this house. She honours us all.”

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