Show Notes for Episode 481: How Simone Veil Changed France

Category: French History


Survivor, conciliateur, combattant, mother,  magistrate, symbol of courage and of conviction

Simone Veil : 1927 –2018

One of only five women to be honored by being placed in the Pantheon as a national hero

If you haven’t heard  of Simone Veil, you have a wonderful story to listen to. This woman, whose appearance and demeanor would never allow you to guess her fortitude and determination, managed to survive one of the worst human tragedies of the 20th century, and go on to spend her life dedicated to law, to society, to the advancement and protection of women. She had a supreme belief in reconciliation and dialogue and fought for a true European community.

In public life from the age of 18 on, she only stopped being active at the age 86 in 2013 when her husband of 67 years, and her last surviving sister both died.

At the time of her death she was the most admired and well known woman in France: and exceptionally, only one year after her death, was taken to the Pantheon along with her husband, to be buried there as one of the GREATS OF FRANCE.

What makes her so important for the history of France and for Europe?

Here is her story.

Part I: Childhood and life until imprisonment. 1927-1944

Simone Jacob was the fourth child of a middle class Jewish family, originally from the northeast of France. Her parents, father architect, mother housewife, moved with the family to Nice where she was born in 1927. Their Jewish identity was largely cultural not religious, and Simone grew up in a warm family which encouraged education above all else. She was extremely pretty with large blue eyes and, as she says in her mémoire, she was really a carefree youngest child. She had one brother, Jean, and two sisters, Denise and Madeleine.

In the early 1930’s with the Crash, her family became poorer and moved to a smaller home and a different neighborhood but she continued her studies at the “good” all girl’s high school of Nice. She loved her studies and apparently was rather brilliant.

By 1939, her father sensed that there might be problems with the  rising Nazism and threats to France, especially after war was declared by France and England against Germany and he warned the family to be careful of who they talked to. Sure enough, in June of 1940, France capitulated and signed an armistice with Germany after their very rapid defeat and the pro- Nazi Vichy government signed in the first Jewish laws, which forebade Jewish people from certain professions, like teaching and architecture and medecine.

But the Veil family lived in Nice, part of the non-occupied zone and so went about their business. Simone continued her studies and her social life.

All of this changed in 1942 when the Germans decided to occupy all of France including the area of Nice which had been “administrated” by the Italians who were very lax. However, in September of ‘43, Mussolini was deposed, and when the Germans found out that the “new” Italian government had signed an agreement of non aggression with the Allies, they sent the SS Troops to Nice to enforce the Nazi-Vichy laws.

In spite of severe warnings from the father and friends that as a Jewish family they could be arrested, they all stayed in Nice and accepted wearing the yellow star, all but Simone.

The children of the family were very involved in the Scout movement, and when, at the end of ‘43, Denise, the oldest sister, found out they were arresting people in Nice, she immediately joined a Resistant group linked to the Scouts and disappeared.

Precariously, life continued in Nice. Simone’s father knew people who were being arrested. Simone, seemingly oblivious to the dangers around her,  continued her studies with the help of a prof even though no longer allowed in school. She  had also refused to put on the yellow star and procured a false identity card.

In March of ‘44, against the wishes of her parents, she went out to celebrate finishing her studies, and along with a friend, was stopped and arrested by a German soldier, who saw that her papers were false.

After  finding out who she was, the Germans  arrested her entire family; her mother, father, brother and other sister Madeleine. The three women were separated from the men; her father and brother were deported to somewhere in the north of europe, while she and her mother and sister were sent to Drancy (near Paris) and from there, put on a train for Auschwitz.

2: Auschwitz and Liberation and Return to France 1943-1945

There is something about fate in people’s lives! Simone Veil was 17 when she arrived in Auschwitz with her sister and mother. As she describes in her autobiography, when they arrived there, a prisoner who spoke French asked her how old she was, and told her that if she said 18, she’d be sent to work, otherwise she would have gone directly to the gas chamber. So she said she was 18, and along with her sister and her mother was sent to a work camp.

While in the work camp, a Kapo, a woman prisoner, put in charge of a group of prisoners, took a liking to her, and one day told Simone that she was too beautiful to die there, and offered to send her to another camp, Brobrek, that was a work/ concentration camp, but where there were at least a little food and a better chance of survival. Simone told her that she wouldn’t go without her sister and mother. They were all sent to Brobrek together.

This was nearing the end of the war and, after months in Brobrek, Simone, her sister and mother, were evacuated like all the other prisoners, and sent on the famous Death March of over 50 miles, with no food or water, – The march lasted from the 18th to the 30th of January of 1945: thousands died along the way. The final destination was the horrible camp of Bergen-Belsen. In March ‘45 her mother died of typhus there. Her sister Madelaine, also sick, was saved by the arrival in early April of ‘45 of the British troops. The two sisters were liberated and sent back to France, to Paris.

1945 to 1970 : A NEW LIFE:  ‘DONT LOOK BACK’

One of the most remarkable things about Simone Jacob Veil is that for the rest of her life, she seemed to never look back, to dwell on the past with anger or bitterness. She took lessons from her experience and that of others, but used the past to try to improve the world.

Her sister Denise, who had been arrested as a Resistant and sent to the Ravensbruck camp, also came back. She had been tortured but managed to survive. So the three sisters were able to be together again.

Her father and brother were never found: and her mother died in Germany. Upon her return to Paris, she was, like the other deportees, sent through the Lutetia Hotel, before being discharged. That is how she found her sister.

Within the year, at the age of 18, apparently in good health, Simone enrolled at the university in Paris in Law and Politcal Science and began a new life. One year later, she met and then soon married a fellow student of Political Science, Antoine Veil, whose family had spent the war years in Switzerland. This was in 1946. She was declaring that living and moving forward were the two most important things

In 1946 she went back to Germany with her husband, where he had to go to finish his studies and as an emissary of the French administration. Severely criticized by many for going to Germany just after the war, especially as she had been sent to a death camp, Simone replied this way: “it is important to distinguish between Nazis and the regular German people”….Her belief and trust in the inherent “goodness” of people is remarkable.

While finishing her law and political studies, she had three sons: in’47, ‘48 and in ‘54. Her husband, Antoine, joined the administration in an important position and, ironically, asked Simone to NOT become an lawyer but to apply for an administrative job at a high level. She accepted this and so very quickly, being brilliant and well connected, got a job working for the Minister of Justice


This was the beginning of a very long and productive life in public service and in politics.

From this point on, whether working for the Justice Department, for the European Community, for the French government, or for Parliament, she focused on several things:

Helping prisoners, especially women, have better treatment. Fighting for equal rights for women in the workplace and in education, Allowing  women to have the right to an abortion, and Creating a European Commmunity as a safeguard of peace.

From 56 – to 70 she worked in the Justice department, fighting to get women out of prisons in Algeria during the war of independence  to avoid rape and assault, to get fighters for the FLN recognized as political prisoners, and in general, fighting for better prison conditions.

In 1970 she became the first Woman Secretary General of the Magistrates (Judges) Council. In the early 1970’s, only 40 % of women, and very few women of the upper classes, worked. Simone Veil created what we now call, the BUZZ, with her very calm poised beauty, her excellent arguments, and her stubborn-ness in fighting for certain things.

1970’S: Politics 

Incredibly, all her adult life she fought for RECONCILIATION, MODERATION, AND RESPECT AND INDEPENDENCE among people, but especially for women.

Simone’s politics were moderate too. Sometimes aligned with the center left, sometimes with the center right, but never ever, with the extremes. She detested the Front National and any movement that was racist or narrow minded . When asked about her politics, she said she was somtimes on the left, sometimes on the right, but always for moderation.

She became only the 2nd woman Health Minister and then in 1971, was asked by the then president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, to prepare a law for the legalization of abortion to be presented to Parliament. She spent a long time preparing her arguments and the legal papers necessary: Giving a speech in front of Parliament, the law was voted on in 1974. It is still called Simone Veil’s Law and was a turning point in French history for women.

During the next years, she worked to add laws to protect women with small children, to give financial aid to the poor, to help with the handicapped. She introduced the first law about forbidding smoking in some public places, like hospitals and schools.


In 1979 she became the head of list to represent France at the European Parliament. And very quickly was elected to be its first President. As President of the European Parliament she focused on Human Rights, and Women’s Rights. She stayed associated with the European Parliament during the1980’s and created, with her husband, a group called the Vauban Club, trying to bring together politicians of different groups, insisting on no labels or extremes. Ferociously opposed to the FN which she considered to be neo nazi, and to the extreme left wing too, she participated in several governments during the 1990’s: Minister of Social Affairs, of State, of Health, and became a member of the Constitutional Council for Europe.

In 2010, at the age of 83, Simone Veil was voted the Preferred Woman in Public Life in France.

From 2001-2007 she was the President of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah

2007 : Her autobiography,  A LIFE, was published, and was a huge success, and has been translated into over 15 languages (including English) In it, she talks about everything; her childhood, the details of the camps, her family, her life in politics, all of it with a real candor.

2008 : Simone Veil was selected to be a member of the Academy Française, a great honor.

2013 : Both her husband and her remaining sister, Denise, died. She retired from public life.

2017 : Simone Jacob Veil died a few days before her 90th birthday. At first buried next to her husband in the Montparnasse Cemetery, she was selected by President Macron, after several huge petitions were sent to him, to be included as a GREAT PERSON / HERO OF FRANCE. This means to be buried in the Pantheon along with the other greats of history.

Her family refused saying that after over 65 years of mariage, she would want to stay next to her husband. After a certain deliberation, and the accord of her sons and family, it was decided to take both Simone and her husband Antoine, to the Pantheon.


On June 29 to 30 of 2018, a huge ceremony and procession took Simone Veil and her husband from Montparnasse cemetery to the Pantheon. The entire event, including the speeches in her honor delivered at the Invalides, was on television.

Along the way, the cortege stopped three times: Symbolically each step represented part of her combat and her achievements

  1. For the Abortion Law 1974
  2. For her fight for a real unified Europe 1979
  3. For her fight to keep the memory of the Deported and the Memorial to the Shoah

In France there are countlass schools, hospitals, squares, streets and buildings named in her honor.

She is only the fifth woman to enter the Pantheon. She is a wonderful example of courage, of determination, of generosity and of tolerance. She was her own woman and carved a unique path through the 20th century.

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Category: French History