Transcript for Episode 481: How Simone Veil Changed France

Category: French History



[00:00:15] Annie Sargent: This is Join Us in France, episode 481, quatre cent quatre vingt un.

[00:00:21] Bonjour, I’m Annie Sargent, and Join Us in France is the podcast where we take a conversational journey through the beauty, culture, and flavors of France.

Today on the podcast

[00:00:31] Annie Sargent: Today, I bring you a conversation with Elyse Rivin of Toulouse Guided Walks, and in this episode, we dive into the life of Simone Veil, a towering figure in French politics and a champion of women’s rights.

[00:00:44] Surviving the Holocaust and rising to become one of the most influential women in modern French history, Veil’s legacy is a testament to resilience, courage, and the relentless pursuit of justice.

[00:00:57] She shattered several glass ceilings, spearheaded the fight for abortion rights in France, and left an indelible mark on European politics. And she is buried in the Pantheon.

Podcast supporters

[00:01:09] Annie Sargent: This podcast is supported by donors and listeners who buy my tours and services, including my Itinerary Consult Service, my GPS self-guided tours of Paris on the VoiceMap app. There’s a new one to come, and it will be a self-guided food tour around Les Halles neighborhood in Paris.

[00:01:28] Or you can also take a day trip with me around the southwest of France in my electric car. And you can browse all of that at my boutique,

The Magazine segment of the podcast: Giant Marionettes in France

[00:01:39] Annie Sargent: For the magazine part of the podcast, after my chat with Elyse today, I’ll briefly discuss the giant marionettes that you can see in action in France.

Annie and Elyse: How Simone Veil Changed France

[00:01:59] Annie Sargent: Bonjour, Elyse.

[00:02:00] Elyse Rivin: Bonjour, Annie.

[00:02:01] Annie Sargent: We have a really important, I think, episode to record today. We’re going to be talking about Simone Veil, who was a major figure in French history and also in European history. And when you are in Paris, you will see, well, and in France in general, you will see her name mentioned here and there.

[00:02:22] And if you listen to this episode today, you’ll understand why.

[00:02:27] Elyse Rivin: Absolutely. Simone Veil is, I think, one of the heroines of the 20th century. I think we could really say that without any, any question. An amazing woman who lived a long life, and considering what she went through, it is quite remarkable that she did. She managed in her lifetime to have many laws passed in France.

[00:02:54] She was someone who convinced people in Europe that peace would be found by creating a European community. She was a woman that was remarkable, especially considering what the first part of her life was like.

[00:03:10] Annie Sargent: Absolutely. So we’re going to start from the beginning and I’ll let you take most of this and I’ll interject on occasion as I always do.

Early Life and Family Background

[00:03:19] Elyse Rivin: Simone Veil was born Simone Jacob. Veil is actually her married name.She was the last child of a family of four of a middle class, or let’s pick, I guess we could say even upper middle class Jewish family. Her father was an architect who apparently had convinced her mom, even though she had had an education, a university education, to be a stay at home mom.

[00:03:42] Annie Sargent: Well, yeah, it was typical. Yeah.

[00:03:45] Elyse Rivin: Yeah, it was like that. So, she grew up, actually, in a very happy-go-lucky kind of environment for the first, let’s say 13, 14 years of her life. Her family was well off, she had lots of friends, she went to very good schools, she was an excellent, excellent student, and we’re talking about a time when, of course, girls went to girl’s schools.

[00:04:06] She lived a life that obviously was what we would call in French, insouciante.

[00:04:11] Annie Sargent: Yeah.

[00:04:11] Elyse Rivin: It’s a lovely word, I love that word, you know, no worries, nothing to think about except, you know, who am I going to be friends with? What am I going to do at school? And things like that.

[00:04:21] Annie Sargent: Definitely, insouciance, a very nice word.

[00:04:24] Elyse Rivin: Very nice word, right.

Impact of World War II and the Holocaust on Simone Veil’s life

[00:04:26] Elyse Rivin: Unfortunately, world history caught up with this family and we are in the 1930s, and there’s the rise of Nazism in Germany, and there is more and more threat of war, and by 1939, her father through, I think, his contacts, because he was not someone who was active politically. He started to worry about what was going to happen if Germany and Nazi basically took over Europe.

[00:04:52] And there was, of course, by this time, an imminent threat of war. And so he kind of warned the family, especially his children, to be careful. It’s a very vague kind of term, in a sense, but be careful, be careful, be careful about who you hang out with, be careful, just in general.

[00:05:08] And interestingly enough, her oldest sister, her sister Denise, the entire family was very active in the scouts.

[00:05:15] Now, the scouts in France, maybe you can help me with this one, Annie, because I know that I’m not sure I understand, it’s not quite the same as the scouts in the States, and the scouts tend to be more oriented politically in France. I know that my husband was a scout. That was a group that was a Protestant group.

[00:05:33] The children in the Jacob family were all scouts, but they were apparently in a group that was relatively political without being religious.

[00:05:41] Annie Sargent: Right. So, yes, I heard her talk about this because in preparation for this recording, I listened to a bunch of her interviews on France Culture, France Inter, et cetera.

[00:05:52] And she explained that being a scout was very important, but she was in a group that was multi-religion, so there were kids of all different religions.

[00:06:02] I’m not sure about the political part, to tell you the truth, but she really liked the scouting programs.

[00:06:10] Elyse Rivin: And apparently so did her older sister Denise. And so what happened, of course, and I assume that pretty much everybody out there knows this. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and England, and France declared war with Germany.

[00:06:24] And from that point on, things changed in the lives of everybody in France, not just in the Jacob family. But what happened was, within the space of a few months, France lost in their attempt to fight against Germany, and Germany basically took over with an amnesty with what they call an armistice, and created the Vichy government.

[00:06:46] The Vichy government was a government that was pro-Nazi. That was one of the most vile governments you could possibly imagine.

[00:06:53] And Germany actually occupied the northern part of France. Well, Nice, of course, was not included in this part. So the entire Jacob family, including Simone, just continued with their lives, although they knew that there was a danger waiting somewhere

[00:07:10] Annie Sargent: Yes, and then, Jews were required to register as Jews, and they did.

[00:07:17] Elyse Rivin: And they did. And interestingly enough, it was what was called the Jewish laws that were created by the Vichy government. Her father, and everybody in her family, registered, but she didn’t. So she clearly, from a very young age, had a rebellious spirit and had a very independent spirit.

[00:07:36] And she refused. She said, I’m not going to wear a yellow star. I’m not going to register. I just, I am not going to do this. And so what happened was, the war continued, and then the Germans came and occupied the rest of France, the southern part of France, which included Nice starting in 42, in September of 1942, and then life changed. Changed for her, changed for everybody in the South.

[00:07:59] And this was when her father could no longer work. The Jewish laws prohibited him and anybody else from having a professional job. She was no longer allowed to go to school. She was in high school. She kept her studies up by working with one of the professors who took care to make sure she had her classes, but she did it from home.

[00:08:19] And strangely enough, when you read her book called ‘A Life’, you still get the impression that nothing fazed her. This is what I find so amazing about her is that she just kept on. She just kept on. She was not worried, she was not afraid.

[00:08:34] But her sister, Denise, who was several years older than her, in 1943, she was at a scout meeting when things started getting really bad and they started finding out that people were being arrested in Nice, and she just never came home.

[00:08:49] She literally left, went and joined a resistant movement and disappeared into the woods, as a major resistant. And so, Simone is at home with her brother, her other sister, her parents, and she manages by 1944 in spite of everything to get her studies finished. And so one day, she decides that with some of her friends, she’s going to go out to celebrate the fact that she has managed to finish all of her high school studies.

[00:09:18] She’s 17 years old.

[00:09:20] Annie Sargent: I think she was 16 still. I think she took the baccalaureat at 16 and she was arrested.

[00:09:28] Elyse Rivin: But she was 17 when she was arrested.

[00:09:30] Annie Sargent: Because it happened the next day. So one day she was taking the baccalaureat, the next day she was arrested.

[00:09:35] Elyse Rivin: Well, it doesn’t matter. I mean she was somewhere between 16 and 17 at that point, you know, because she was definitely under 18, but her parents had forbade her to go outside.

[00:09:45] I mean, they were arresting Jewish people, they were sending them away, and they had moved to a smaller apartment in a different neighborhood, and they were trying to basically have a very low profile. And she did not listen to her parents. And she had procured for herself false papers, which is just absolutely amazing, on her own.

[00:10:04] She didn’t get any help from her family in doing so. She had false papers and she went out with a friend to go and celebrate the fact that they had basically finished their studies. And along the way, was stopped by a German soldier who asked for her papers, and obviously these were not papers that were very, very well done, because they looked suspicious, and so she was taken down to the police station. And both she and the young friend that was with her, were in fact arrested. And when they found out where she lived, the police went back to the house where she was, where her family was, and they arrested the entire family.

Surviving Auschwitz and the Aftermath

[00:10:46] Elyse Rivin: So everybody was arrested except for her older sister, Denise, who had actually disappeared into the woods as a resistant. Her father and her brother were taken separately, and she and her sister Madeleine and her mother were put into a train and they were sent to Drancy.

[00:11:04] And Drancy, it’s another whole story, but it’s the, it was basically the triage center up north near Paris, where prisoners, the Jewish people, the foreigners, the immigrants, were taken that were about to be deported where they actually decided who was going where.

[00:11:21] And so she was with her sister and her mother, and she and the two of them were put onto a train and sent to Auschwitz. This is in the end of 1943, beginning of 1944. I don’t remember exactly the date that she actually was sent away, but that was the last time she ever saw her brother and her father. They were sent to a camp in Northern Europe and basically disappeared. Nobody knows in fact, what ever happened to them. They never came back.

[00:11:51] The remarkable thing about all of this is that when they arrived in Auschwitz, this is already the time when the Germans are starting to do more and more extermination, because as the war got on, as it looked like the Germans were going to lose the war, that was when they did most of the actual exterminating of people.

[00:12:12] And when they got off the train, somebody, apparently somebody who spoke French, said to her, if you tell them you’re under 18, they will send you immediately to the gas chamber. If you tell them that you are 18, they will believe you, and they will send you to do hard labor. And so she decided that that’s what she was going to do.

[00:12:35] So when the German officers asked her how old she was, she said she was 18. And so she, and her sister, and her mom were sent in Auschwitz to the labor camp, which of course did not guarantee that they would survive in any way, anyway.

[00:12:52] Annie Sargent: No, many of them did not.

[00:12:53] Elyse Rivin: Many, many, many of them did not. Fate is extremely interesting in terms of people’s lives.

[00:12:59] And more and more, I think it’s just something you never know, you never know, you never know what’s going to happen, you never know who you’re going to cross paths with. She was in a barracks. And there was a capo. And for those who don’t know what a capo is, a capo was a person who was already a prisoner who was put in charge of a barracks, and basically, were doing the dirty work for the Germans.

[00:13:23] And this was a woman, a capo, who took a liking to her. Simone Jacob was very, very beautiful. She had gorgeous big blue eyes. She had this absolutely exquisite face. And this woman basically by taking a liking to her saved her life, and saved the lives of her sister and her mother. Because she took her apart from the others one day and said to her, you are too beautiful to be sent to a camp.

[00:13:51] I mean, just imagine that your whole future depends on the fact that there’s this one person who, for whatever reasons, nefarious or not, she could have had very, what we would call in French, mauvaise intention,

[00:14:04] and what she did, this woman, was she took Simone and she said to her, I will send you to another work camp. That’s a kind of auxiliary of Auschwitz called Brobrek and Simone looked at her and she said to her, I won’t go if you don’t allow my sister and mother to go with me. And so this capo managed to get Simone, her sister, and her mom sent to this other camp, this work camp where they had a little bit to eat as opposed to nothing, where they were able to barely survive, but able to survive. And this is in 1944.

[00:14:38] Annie Sargent: Right, so I heard her on an interview, get asked how she managed to survive. And she said that it was a lot of luck, and also that she was a little tougher than most. So she didn’t go along with a lot of stuff, and also she just didn’t let the manipulation, the emotional manipulation get to her.

[00:15:05] But it was very hard for her to talk about it. And she didn’t really talk about it until the 70s.

[00:15:12] Until the 70s, exactly.

[00:15:14] All of this came out much later. And even when she was asked about this extensively in interviews, she kept it very minimal. Like she just didn’t want to describe the horror, she just said, you know, we were all very thin, very sick, and it was a terrible time.

[00:15:34] And she was tough, and clearly very, very, very resilient.

[00:15:38] And smarter than most people.

[00:15:40] Elyse Rivin: And who knows, really, who knows what really went on through in her mind at that time? Here she is, 18 years old, trying to protect her sister who is a little bit older than her, and her mom, and all through 1944, they have to deal with this. And then what happens is, there is this atrocious ending to all of this, because as the Germans, you know, were pulling back, they did something that would added to all the horror of all of the camps.

[00:16:10] They created these death marches. And they took the remaining living people out of these camps, out of Auschwitz, and this is Brobrek and all of these others, and they force marched them with no food and no water on a 70 kilometer march, which is just about 45 miles in the wintertime, to another camp. And they went to the camp of Bergen Belsen, where unfortunately, her mother died of typhus.

[00:16:37] And it was thanks to the arrival of the Russians that she was saved, and then it was thanks to the arrival of the British that her sister Denise, who had already caught typhus and was quite sick, was quite ill, was saved as well. And so they were liberated, they were among the few people who actually were able to survive and liberated.

Post-War Life and Return to Normalcy

[00:17:01] Elyse Rivin: And in 1945, she worked her way, I don’t know how the process was exactly, I don’t remember exactly with all the people who were actually were survivors, but she managed to make her way back to France.

[00:17:14] And by the end of 1945, she had decided that life was going to go forward. And her mom was gone, her brother was gone, her father was gone, her sister was alive. Strangely enough, and ironically, in a good sense, she discovered by coming back to France in 1945 that her oldest sister Denise was still alive. She had managed to survive being put into another concentration camp that was a camp just for resistance.

[00:17:43] And she was, she met up with her in Paris. So the three sisters were able to be reunited.

[00:17:49] Annie Sargent: It’s really interesting to see, to hear her talk about the fact that when they came back from the camps, the prevalent attitude was silence. Nobody asked them any questions. Nobody wanted to know. And she actually said many times in the 70s, we wanted to talk, we wanted to explain what had happened to us, but nobody wanted to hear it.

[00:18:18] So there’s this, I think people were traumatizedby this war. And it wasn’t a normal, like somebody comes back from a terrible, terrible ordeal where you want to hear all about it. Well, this is not what happened. Nobody wanted to hear this. And so she just went on with her life very quickly.

[00:18:37] Elyse Rivin: Very quickly. Within the year, she had enrolled at the university in law and in political science.

[00:18:43] And within the year, she met a young man named Antoine Veil, who was from a Jewish family, but who had escaped to Switzerland during the war. They were from relatively well off, I think, upper-middle class family and they had spent the war years in Switzerland. And she met him on a ski vacation of all things, which means that she just picked up her life and went forward with it, within the year.

[00:19:06] In 1946, they were married. She was 19 years old. The next year she had the first of her three sons, all the while studying to pass the law degree, to pass the exams for political science, which in France are extremely difficult. Her husband was already involved in political science and in business.

[00:19:27] He was someone who encouraged her to continue her studies. And something remarkable happened. In 1946, at the age of 20, having just gotten married, she returned to Germany with her husband. She went to Stuttgart and she went to a couple of other places that he had to go because he was doing his work in international studies.

[00:19:49] And people were astonished that one year after being liberated from Auschwitz and the concentration camps, she was willing to go back and confront German people and be in Germany. And one of the first things she said when asked about this, and this really is an indication of who she was for her entire life.

[00:20:12] She said, I was clear in my mind that there was a difference between the Nazis, and just German people, as a people. And I wasn’t going to make the error of condemning absolutely everybody for what happened either to me or to other people.

[00:20:28] Annie Sargent: Yeah, and that’s a big sign of her personality. On the other hand, when she started her studies, she wanted to be a lawyer. And her husband told her, no, you don’t want to be a lawyer because that’s very long hours, it’s unpredictable hours and you want to be a mom and it’s not going to work out.

[00:20:48] So she decided to study to be a juriste instead, which means that she was on the kind of judgeship kind of track. And as soon as she finished her studies, she applied for, and was accepted in the Conseil Supérieur de la Magistrature, which in France is a, if you go to the Palais Royal area in Paris, and you see theColonne de Buren, you are surrounded by this council of the Conseil de la Magistrature.

[00:21:21] Elyse Rivin: Is that where it is?

[00:21:22] Annie Sargent: Yes.It’s a rectangle, so it’s hard to orient you, but one of the sides is the Conseil de la Magistrature and you can visit it if you go in Paris during the Journées du Patrimoine, which I was lucky enough to do, and they, in there they have a lot of juristes, which are legal experts who are the, you know, the top of the cream.

[00:21:44] They’re the best of the best to be in this situation. And they, their job is to review the laws, write laws as instructed by the legislators and the president. Because in France, both the Congress and the president can propose laws. And all of these laws are reviewed by the Conseil de la Magistrature.

[00:22:07] They also work for stuff like ethics and anyway, it’s a very importantjob to have, and she did that straight out of college.

[00:22:17] Elyse Rivin: She got, the first job was in the Ministry of Justice. And interestingly enough, it was as if her life was set out from that point on, because she spent years actually the first period of time in her professional life, she worked very hard on issues that were connected to justice and very, very particularly for prisoners, conditions for prisoners, and conditions for women.

[00:22:43] And at the beginning of the 1960s, starting at the end of the 50s, there was the war with Algeria. There was the War of Independence in Algeria, and there were many, many women, Algerian women, who were taken prisoner because they participated in the War of Independence.

[00:23:00] And there were people in France that belonged to what was called the FLN, which was the liberation movement of the Algerians. And one of the things that she did, as a part of the justice department, as a member of the justice department, was to help enforce laws that would give them decent treatment in prison.

[00:23:20] Annie Sargent: Yeah, she was very involved in protecting the rights of prisoners. We understand why, you know.

[00:23:27] Elyse Rivin: And very particularly, women. She was worried that the women who were sent to prison, particularly in places like Algeria, would be raped, would be tortured, and so she managed to bring many of them to France, where the conditions were, let’s say, certainly a little bit more acceptable than that.

[00:23:46] Annie Sargent: Not quite as horrible, but not great.

[00:23:47] Elyse Rivin: Not great. But it’s interesting that, not only was prison one of the red buttons that you could push to get her to activate, you know, whatever her zeal was, but anything, absolutely anything from that point on connected to women and the conditions of women.

[00:24:03] From 1956 to 1970, she worked for the Justice Department. She became the first woman Secretary General of the Magistrature, in 1970. She was working in the 50s and 60s when many, many women that were upper-middle class were not working, so she was really someone who people talked about.

[00:24:26] She was beautiful.

[00:24:28] She was very stayed in her demeanor. She was very, very, very dignified at all times. And she was a workhorse.

[00:24:38] Annie Sargent: Right, because she kept working through pregnancies, having three boys.

[00:24:43] Elyse Rivin: She never quit. She never quit.

[00:24:44] Annie Sargent: Yeah, so, this is someone who was exceptional. Because these are times when most women once they had children, just dedicated themselves to their children, and you can’t blame them, children are a lot of work. And she felt a little bit bad about this because she, I heard her also mention that one of her sons in particular had a very hard time with the fact that she was not a stay at home mom. And he came to terms with it later in life, and she was very relieved. Because she always felt guilty leaving her kids, you know, in the good care of other people, you know, hired people, but she felt guilty. And I think a lot of moms relate to that.

The Unexpected Appointment as a Health Minister

[00:25:27] Elyse Rivin: It’s very interesting, too, because, she did have children right away after getting married. I mean, she was very young when she had her first child. She was only twenty something. I mean, she was twenty and a half years old. But she did not want to give up either being a mother, or having her career. And her life revolved around her mission, and her mission was to do things that would involve the conditions of women, that would involve reconciliation among people, that would be about moderation and respect. And it is rather amazing. She made several comments at different times in her career about how much she could not abide the extremes in politics. She could not abide the extreme right wing, which of course was coming to the fore at that time, which was at that point called the Front National.

[00:26:13] And she could not abide the extreme left wing either. She believed that the way forward for people was through moderation and dialogue.

[00:26:24] And of course, in the times we live in today, we really need voices like that, in general. You know, she was the second person in the history of France to become health minister in 1971.

[00:26:37] You mean the second woman?

[00:26:37] Second woman, yes, sorry. Did I say not say woman? Yes, second woman to become health minister for the president at the time, who was Valérie Giscard d’Estaing and with him and under his auspices, she prepared and presented the major law that is now associated with her, which is the law that is the legalization of abortion or the right for women to have control over their reproduction.

[00:27:03] Annie Sargent: Right. So, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing was a right wing president, not extreme right, but he was a right wing president, and he was looking to hire women, because he had made a campaign promise to do so. And she explained herself later that he didn’t have that many choices, in the higher ranks of the, you know, the French administration, there weren’t that many. And so she said, he picked me because I was one of the few. And he picked very well.

[00:27:35] And a natural career progression for her would have been to become the Minister of Justice because she had been in justice. Instead, he names her to be the Minister of Health. And he had made a campaign promise, which was very strange, that he wanted to do something about reproductive rights.

Reproductive Rights in France

[00:27:53] Annie Sargent: And that’s strange because he was a right winger, and most right wingers at the time just wanted nothing to do with any of this.

[00:28:00] Elyse Rivin: But he hired her and he put her in charge of writing a new law that would allow abortion in France. Now, this did not come immediately. Before that, there had been a law for contraception in France, which came in the mid-fifties, which was very, very controversial for the right wing because they said: Oh, this contraception is going to make our young ladies ill, you know? So once that passed, he wanted to move forward with abortion.

Passing the Abortion Law

[00:28:35] Annie Sargent: So, I want to talk about how she got this passed because it’s a major achievement.

[00:28:41] So I I’m basing this on the speech that she made in parliament to defend the law, which she had written with the help of other legal scholars, but she knew the law very well, and she knew the working of the parliament very well. So she opened her speech by saying that this was a difficult topic.

[00:28:59] She acknowledged the previous attempts to tackle reproductive rights and said it was difficult.

[00:29:04] Which of course was a, there was a major opposition to it because it is still a very Catholic country at the time. Yes.

[00:29:11] Then she asked questions. Do we need a new law? Why don’t we just enforce the current law? Why do this now at all? I think that was very smart to start with questions. And she talked about disorder in the country, because there were a lot of demonstrations in favor of reproductive rights all over France, and that the current law that outlawed abortion was being broken constantly.

[00:29:38] She stated that a law that cannot be enforced must be repealed, which is what the French Constitution says. The leaders should not try to elude their responsibility . When a law is broken constantly, what are you going to do about it?

[00:29:55] And she asked the question, can we stop clandestine abortions?

[00:30:01] Can we jail all the women who seek an abortion? Are we going to stand by while the law is being ridiculed everywhere in France? The authority of the state is put into question and we must regain control over the situation.

[00:30:17] That was the way she tackled it. And it’s a fact that doctors performed abortions and that many did it publicly.

[00:30:26] Social services referred women to these doctors and also did it publicly. Associations organized trips abroad where abortion was legal and did so publicly. And she said, this anarchy cannot continue. So why don’t we use repression against these doctors, social workers, and association?

[00:30:49] And then she said, we don’t use repression because these people don’t do this because it’s fun to end a pregnancy.

[00:30:58] The situation that these women are in is the issue. The situation is the issue. Many of these doctors and social workers don’t agree with abortion, but they do take their responsibility seriously and do something to help these women who are going to turn to desperate measures if they don’t get help from a real doctor.

[00:31:20] So, these same doctors and social workers know that the women who have money and are well informed have always been able to end an unwanted pregnancy safely, either by going abroad or by going to a private clinic where such things were handled, okay? She said that she knew there were about 300.000 abortions done in France every year.

[00:31:44] And that these women were not less moral or less aware of the law.

[00:31:49] They were distressed and they faced a dramatic situation, and we cannot continue to ignore that fact and leave them in their distress. And that it was an injustice and that we couldn’t stick our heads in the sand.

[00:32:06] And then she makes humble demands. She says, abortion must be the exception and reserved for situations where there is no good solution. How do we keep it rare and stop it from becoming another form of birth control?

[00:32:23] And then she, again, super smart woman, she said, I apologize for speaking as a woman in front of an assembly almost exclusively made up of men.

[00:32:35] And she said, no woman is happy to get an abortion, just ask them. It’s always a tragedy. We must regain control of the situation by making abortion legal and rare, and do everything to stir these distressed women in another direction, if possible. We must help these women who are in distress, that’s how we keep abortion rare.

[00:33:00] And the only way to do that is to make it legal within the framework of the law. And she also said that being judgmental is easier than being helpful, which is true.

[00:33:10] What about men? Do they have anything to say about this? And on this point, she was very tough and inflexible. She says, no, you cannot ask for permission from the husband, for married women, because that’s an accommodation that some people wanted to make. Just make it so that you can get an abortion, but the husband has to agree to it. She says, many of the women who seek an abortion are not married, and you cannot place an undue burden on the ones that are married. So if you’re, if you can’t ask the unmarried women for the man’s opinion, you cannot force married women to get the opinion of their spouse.

[00:33:50] Legal argument. You can’t beat that one. But then if we let women decide alone, don’t we give them too much power? No. We give them a terrible responsibility and that is theirs to bear, and it’s harder to decide to go ahead with an abortion when you know you’re the only one to blame rather than pushing the responsibility on others.

[00:34:15] She needs to decide, and it’s not going to be easy. Then she argued that we want abortion to be legal, but not mundane or common.

[00:34:25] It was only allowed up to 10 weeks of gestation, which was really, really short, because most women don’t know they’re pregnant by 10 weeks, okay? By now in France, it’s allowed during the first trimester, so that’s 16 weeks from the first missed period. Which is more restrictive than the rules in many other countries, still.

[00:34:49] Abortions are only allowed in hospitals or clinics, but not clinics that are only dedicated to reproductive services. And this is something that I wish to say, because I always wondered.

[00:35:02] In America, I know that people picket places where abortions take place because usually it’s going to be at

[00:35:10] What’s it called? Planned Parenthood.

[00:35:12] Well, in France, an abortion takes place in a hospital or in a clinic where lots of everything takes place, and so they don’t have a specific place to go picket or harass the people because it takes place everywhere.

[00:35:30] So, that’s just a, that’s just an aside.

[00:35:32] Abortion was not reimbursed by social security, which is our health insurance, so the woman had to pay for these services, but the price was regulated just like any other medical act in France.

[00:35:45] She argued that dental and vision are not reimbursed either, were not at the time by social security, so, you know, why reimburse abortion? That was a big part of keeping abortion an unusual act . She made the law only valid for five years, giving people on the right license to vote yes, knowing that it wouldn’t go on forever without voting on it again.

[00:36:10] It was a right wing president who suggested this, and they all knew that it was mostly left wing representatives that were gonna vote for it, and they were right.

[00:36:20] In the end, the president, the party of the president, only one in four voted in favor of the law. It was mostly socialists and communists who at the time made up a big part of the French parliament, who voted for it unanimously.

[00:36:36] But he must have, there was a reason why a president who was relatively right wing would present this law. So clearly, he had his own ideas about it.

[00:36:45] Yes, he just wanted, just like she did, he wanted this issue dealt with. I mean, it puts the country in a difficult situation because abortions are going to take place anyway.

[00:36:57] Elyse Rivin: It becomes a big health issue.

[00:36:58] Annie Sargent: Yeah, so it’s a health issue and that’s why the health minister got involved. She also pointed out in that speech that when they made contraception and divorce legal, it didn’t lead to a crumbling of society, as some had warned against, and this probably would not either, but just in case, let’s just do it for five years and see what happens. Needless to say, it has not been repealed since and never will be.

[00:37:26] She concluded by admitting that needing an abortion was always a sign that something is terribly wrong. But as a country, we must stop looking the other way when 300.000 women have an abortion every year in France, making so many of them unable to have children later when their situation improves.

[00:37:49] And we cannot let our laws be broken in plain sight while injuring the women who need this procedure. So this law was passed with a comfortable majority, but lots of opposition from the right wing parties. And the French Senate, strangely, passed it unanimously.

[00:38:08] Elyse Rivin: Unanimously? Unanimously. Good for them.

[00:38:11] Annie Sargent: Yeah, so, before this law, she really wasn’t known very well. Majority of people had never heard of Simone Veil.

[00:38:19] Elyse Rivin: Publicly she wasn’t known. She was known in political circles, administrative circles.

[00:38:23] Annie Sargent: Right. But once she took up the fight, and the majority of French people were for this change, it’s only some very extreme right wingers that were totally against it and still are.

[00:38:39] So she became famous and in interviews, she repeated many, many times that that was difficult for her to all of a sudden be recognized in the streets.

[00:38:52] She was always touched when people came up to her, like she, she recounted an instance where she was on vacation somewhere and somebody recognized her and she was a striking woman, like you said, you know, she was very beautiful and very striking. She had been on TV a lot because of this law, and this woman recognized her and asked her if she could give her a kiss. And she said yes and she gave her a kiss and said thank you, and left.

[00:39:20] And she was always very touched by people like that, but she found it difficult to be recognized everywhere she went.

[00:39:29] Elyse Rivin: She was what we call, the word in French is pudique, which is very, you know, she wasn’t used to notoriety, she wasn’t used to being that much in the public eye. Just to know that the law was passed, in fact, in 1974, and then it went on to be one of the most important laws to add to the French Constitution in the last 50 years.

[00:39:52] That’s basically what has happened. And most people do call it Simone Veil’s law.

[00:39:56] She’s the one who put it forth. She’s the one who convinced people. She was really rather remarkable. To me, it’s just consistent with everything that she ever did in terms of her fighting for helping the conditions of women, among other things, you know, after that.

[00:40:12] It’s interesting because I didn’t know some of the detail about, of course, how she did the arguments for it. I just know from my stay in France, that it has always been this has been Simone Veil’s law and this is, I guess I am just like everybody else in that sense you know, this is how I came to know who she was.

[00:40:31] Annie Sargent: And it’s really interesting that when the US Supreme Court repealed the right, you know, Roe vs Wade in the last recent years, that the reaction in France was to say, okay, now this is a law, but we should put it in the Constitution so that it’s harder to change. Because we are not, I mean, some right wing crazy nutcase could take control in France as well.

[00:40:57] Elyse Rivin: Well, of course, and the system is so different, it would just be, it would, it’s kind of complicated to do, you know.


Simone Veil’s Influence on the European Parliament

[00:41:02] Elyse Rivin: Just to continue with the rest of her life, I mean, by 1974, she’s in her late 40s, so she’s still relatively young. She still has a good distance to go in terms of her career.

[00:41:14] Interestingly enough, in 1979, she decides that she wants to represent the head of the list for representing France at the European Parliament, one of the biggest missions she had her entire life.

[00:41:30] As a result, I think of obviously of what happened in World War II is that she wanted, she believed in and wanted to create a strong Europe, a Europe that would, where people would talk to each other, would work in peace on things.

[00:41:42] And so not only was she part of the list, because every country elects people to represent their country at the European Parliament, but she was voted president of the European Parliament, and she became the very first European president.

[00:41:58] And it was, here we are, a woman who is in 1979, a survivor of Auschwitz who has gone on to be an administrator and a politician in France.

[00:42:08] And for years and years, one of the biggest fights that she had, as a personal fight in terms of achieving something, was making sure that Europe worked, which is of course a whole, whole can of beans. It’s very complicated and not very, very easy at all.

[00:42:23] Annie Sargent: You know, there are a lot of people who say Europe doesn’t work, but I disagree. I think Europe works. The point of Europe was to never have another world war, which both started in Europe, and in that regard, it works.

[00:42:38] Now, some people are upset about fishing rights and raw cheese, milk, and… Who cares?

[00:42:47] Like these are, that doesn’t matter. What matters is we don’t, we haven’t had another world war started in Europe. And trust me, there are a lot of people who like to, you know, yank everybody’s chain and would love to start something if they could.

The Vauban Club

[00:43:04] Elyse Rivin: Yeah, and interestingly enough, with her husband, she started something called the Vauban Club, which was a political…

[00:43:11] I don’t know about that one.

[00:43:12] Yeah, in the middle of the 1980s, I think they were both pretty much disgusted with the extremes in politics, and so they decided to create a club. Now, club in the sense of, obviously, we’re talking about something that is relatively elite, for politicians and for people who are in the higher end of the administration. But the concept of the club was to bring people together from different political positions with no label attached to anything and to create dialogue and moderation, and to exclude extremes in politics. That was the mission of the Vauban club, and it existed right through into the death of her husband in 2013.

[00:43:53] Interesting, I can imagine how there must have been lots of people who were saying, you know, you have to take a position, and their attitude was, no, every issue is a separate issue. You create a dialogue. You work out something. You deal with moderation. You don’t take a political stand that’s based on a political party line, that was what they did not want to do.

[00:44:13] In 2007, she wrote her biography, her autobiography called ‘A Life’, which I have read, which is translated into many, many, many languages. It’s absolutely wonderful to read.

[00:44:24] Annie Sargent: A really good book.

[00:44:25] Elyse Rivin: It’s a really good book and it is really quite remarkable because she’s able to talk without extreme emotion, but yet she really talks about all these things that happened to her, all these things that happened to her as a young person, the misery of what happened in World War II, the events in her life in relation to her family, her mission in terms of politics, her belief in basically the goodness of the human being.

[00:44:51] It’s rather extraordinary.

The End of an Era: Simone Veil’s Later Life and Death

[00:44:53] Elyse Rivin: In 2010, at the age of 83, she was voted the preferred woman in public life in France.

[00:45:00] Annie Sargent: Hmm. Cool.

[00:45:02] Elyse Rivin: Really, it’s really quite remarkable. And then, obviously getting older, in 2013 her husband of 67 years died, as did her older sister, Denise, who had managed to live that long. And she retired from public life in 2013, and she continued to do some writing.

[00:45:24] And then she did die in 2017, just a few days short of her 90th birthday.

[00:45:31] Annie Sargent: So she had a remarkable long life, a happy life, I think, for the most part. I mean, for difficult times, full of challenges, full of achievements, incredible achievements, really. Because it took a personality like her to move the country forward. I don’t think somebody more, more extreme would have passed this law.

[00:45:57] And it’s interesting to hear the interviews of different people, because we have the lady who started Planned Parenthood in France, she felt like it was too little.

[00:46:10] Uh Huh.

[00:46:10] That much more was needed, but, but they went along anyway and little by little, the abortion law got, you know, we went from 10 weeks to 16 weeks, which is more reasonable because in 16 weeks, most people know they’re pregnant.

[00:46:26] Elyse Rivin: There were, you know, there were likea wait time of 10 days, you had to have a formal interview at the beginning when applying for an abortion, then you had to have 10 days and a formal interview at the end. Anyway, it was, there were a lot of difficulties placed in the way of the women who wanted an abortion, and especially if you had to get it done by 10 weeks.

[00:46:46] Annie Sargent: So, the people at Planned Parenthood were not very happy about that, but they supported her anyway.

[00:46:52] And she got it passed. And she got it passed.

Honoring Simone Veil: The Journey to the Panthéon

[00:46:55] Annie Sargent: We should end with talking about the Panthéon.

[00:46:57] Yes.

[00:46:58] Elyse Rivin: Now, Simone, which is what I found myself calling her all the time I was doing my little show notes and reading about it, it’s as if I know her personally, she died in 2017. Immediately, immediately, there were petitions signed by hundreds and thousands of people asking that she be put in the Panthéon as one of France’s great heroes.

[00:47:21] And what happened was that Macron, who was president in 2017, of course is still president now, he asked the family, because the family does have to give permission, actually, to have this done. And her children said that they did not want her brought to the Panthéon because she would not want to be separated from her husband of 67 years.

[00:47:42] They were both buried in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. And so, after a year of negotiation, obviously, I’m not sure what the committee is that you have to talk to in terms of the administration, but what happened was that the Macron, who as president, he’s the one that can nominate and choose someone to be brought to the Panthéon to be honored with this great thing of being one of the greats in the history of France.

[00:48:08] They went back to her family, her children and grandchildren, and said, what if we bring them both to the Panthéon?

[00:48:15] And so they did. They accepted the idea that they would be together, like the Curies are together in the Panthéon. She is only one of a handful of women to actually be in the Panthéon.

[00:48:27] And on June 29th and 30th of 2018, which was literally exactly a year after her death, there was a huge ceremony, which we both watched on television, with speeches in the courtyard of Les Invalides, which were very moving, and then the procession which went from there to the Panthéon. And I didn’t remember this, but apparently, it made three very specific stops that were very symbolic along the way.

[00:48:55] The first stop was to acknowledge the abortion law that she was responsible for passing in 1974. The second stop was to acknowledge her fight for a real unified Europe. And the third stop was to acknowledge her fight to keep the memory of the deported and the memorial of the Shoah going, because it was a very important thing for her.

[00:49:20] Annie Sargent: And a detail that’s really important is that whenever she talked about the Shoah, she always said

[00:49:27] Elyse Rivin: the extermination of Jews and the gypsies, she didn’t use the word gypsy, she used another word that escapes me right now, but she was very clear that the Jews were not the only ones to have suffered through this.

[00:49:41] Which of course, is part of her inclusiveness in terms of her philosophy of life, you know, it was very moving. I remember watching all of it. It was really quite amazing. And the final ceremony in the Panthéon where she and her husband still are, and you can go and pay your respects.

[00:49:59] Annie Sargent: Yeah. She definitely is one of the greats and we are very lucky to have had someone like her to look up to, because every country needs a great person like that. I wish she could have been president, but she was probably born a little too early for that. But she would have been a great one.

[00:50:16] She would have been a great one.

[00:50:17] Merci beaucoup, Elyse.

[00:50:18] Elyse Rivin: You’re welcome Annie.

[00:50:19] Au revoir.


Thank you Patrons

[00:50:27] Annie Sargent: Again, I want to thank my patrons for giving back and supporting the show. Patrons get several exclusive rewards for doing so, you can see them at Thank you all for supporting the show, some of you have been doing it for many years, you are wonderful.

New patrons

[00:50:43] Annie Sargent: And a shout out this week to new patrons: Kae Sukut and Paula Parks-Fitzhugh wonderful to have you on board in the community of Francophiles who keep this podcast going. And if you want to support Elyse, go to

[00:51:03] Somebody left a review of one of my tours this week, and this review was written in German, so it’s a first for me. I’m tickled. So this is Google Translate, okay? ‘Very nice tour, our first and certainly not last tour. Unfortunately, the app crashed shortly before the end and we couldn’t get back on the tour. Instead, we finished it virtually.’

[00:51:25] Yeah. So, VoiceMap is really good, but you know, sometimes your phone causes crashes and not the specific app you’re using.

[00:51:33] I think we all get to the point where our phones start doing funky things. So it’s good practice to just reboot your phone before you start walking a VoiceMap tour. That way, if it crashes, you can blame it on VoiceMap.

[00:51:49] I’ve been doing itinerary consults twice a day, most days, even though I’m in Spain renovating my apartment. It’s kept me very, very busy. I’m also starting the writing of a new VoiceMap tour that I mentioned at the beginning for the best food areas of Paris, I think going on a food tour with a human guide is a great thing, but I think you can just as well have a wonderful time looking around by yourselves, buying a bit of this and that, especially if you get a recommendation, which I will give you, and take it back to your hotel or apartment. A wonderful way to explore Paris, for sure!

The Giant Puppets

[00:52:30] Annie Sargent: Ok, let’s talk about the giant puppets. So, there are two companies that do this in France, they are, one is in Nantes, Les Machines de l’Île, in Nantes, and the other one is La Machine, Les Halle de la Machine in Toulouse.

[00:52:49] Now, the very first company was called Royal Deluxe and that became l’Île de Nantes. Okay? Les Machines de l’Île, de Nantes.

[00:52:59] Now, these giant puppets, they are truly giant and they have several kinds. In Nantes, they have the giant elephant. In Toulouse, they have the minotaur, other places have a girl, there is a guy that looks like he’s diving. A diver. Anyway, there’s many of them, some massive and some much smaller.

[00:53:21] And they are very, very impressive to see. Now, everybody would like to see these in city streets. And I have been lucky enough to see the Minotaur in the streets of Toulouse. It’s wonderful. The thing is, the Minotaur doesn’t come out to the streets of Toulouse very commonly, because it’s a huge deal getting it out, you have to make sure that it’s not gonna hit any balconies, any branches, you have to clear a lot of things along the way, and so it only comes out to play for very specific events. And sometimes municipalities will announce those, you know, months in advance.

[00:54:01] I don’t know of any other, if any times the Minotaur is going to come out in Toulouse. But where you can see it, and where you can ride it, is if you go to Les Machines de l’Île, or the La Halle de la Machine in Toulouse.

[00:54:17] So if you are in Nantes, or if you are in Toulouse, you can see them. You can ride them, but you will only be going around their fenced area where it’s safe and where they know there’s nothing to hit.

[00:54:30] So there you have it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to do. And I wanted to talk about this because somebody asked about it on Facebook. And it’s true that some of these machines have been retired, not all of them work. They are quite finicky, very difficult to run, but they are great fun to see, so I can only recommend that you go see them.

[00:54:53] Oh, and I’m seeing one, Royal Deluxe in Nantes in 2023, apparently did a giant dog. Massive, wonderful puppets.

[00:55:02] My thanks to podcast editors Anne and Cristian Cotovan who produce the transcripts and make the podcast sound good.

[00:55:10] Next week on the podcast an episode with Mike Katz about a first time trip to Paris. Always wonderful to hear what people have to say the first time they go to Paris. Can you remember the first time you went to Paris? I can’t, I was too young. But I remember the first time I went as an adult, and believe it or not, I was living in the US at the time. And my only kind of, who can tell me about Paris, because even as a French person, you don’t necessarily know Paris, right? I bought a Rick Steves book. And then I felt very silly walking around Paris with a Rick Steves book. You don’t see French people doing that every day, do you?

[00:55:54] Thank you so much for listening, and I hope you join me next time so we can look around France together. Au revoir.



[00:56:01] Annie Sargent: The Join Us in France travel podcast is written, hosted, and produced by Annie Sargent and Copyright 2024 by AddictedToFrance. It is released under a Creative Commons, attribution, non-commercial, no derivatives license.

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Category: French History