Veil, Simone (1927—)
Veil, Simone (1927—)
Most important female politician in France in the 20th century, the first woman minister of the Fifth Republic, who saw to passage of the laws on adoption and abortion (the loi Veil) and was the first president of the European Parliament after it became elected by popular vote. Pronunciation: see-MOHN VAY, the L is sounded but truncated. Born Simone-Annie-Liline Jacob in Nice, France, on July 13, 1927; daughter of André Jacob (1890–c. 1944, an architect) and Yvonne Steinmetz Jacob (1900–1945); sister of Denise Jacob; educated at the Lycée de Nice, the Institut d'Études Politiques, and the Faculty of Law (Sorbonne); married Antoine Veil (b. 1926), in 1946; children: Jean (b. 1947); Claude-Nicolas (b. 1949); François-Pierre (b. 1954).
Deported to Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen (1944–45); received diploma from the Institut d'Études Politiques and law license from the Faculty of Law (Sorbonne, 1948); qualified as a magistrate (1956); was attaché at the Ministry of Justice with the Administration of Prisons (1957–64); at the Ministry of Justice's Office of Civil Affairs (1964–68); passage of the Adoption Law (1966); served as secretary-general of the Conseil Supérieur de la Magistrature (1970–79); was minister of Health in Jacques Chirac's cabinet (1974–76); passage of the Abortion Law (1974–75); was minister of Health and Social Security in Raymond Barre's cabinet (1976–79); was a member of the European Parliament (1979–93); was president of the European Parliament (1979–82); chaired the Legal Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (1982–84); chaired the Liberal and Democratic and Reforming Group of the European Parliament (1984–89); was minister of Health, Social Affairs, and Urban Affairs in Édouard Balladur's cabinet (1993–95); signed the Manifesto of Ten (1996); member of the Conseil Constitutionnel (1998—).
(with Clément Launay and Michel Soulé) L'Adoption: Données médicales, psychologiques, et sociales (Paris: Éditions Sociales français, 1968).
On Sunday, March 30, 1944, the Gestapo arrested Simone Jacob, aged 16, during a roundup of Jews in Nice, France. The memory of that moment haunted her ever afterward—even more, if possible, than the horrific experiences which followed at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
Simone Veil was the youngest of four children—Madeleine "Milou" Jacob (b. 1923), Denise Jacob (b. 1924), Jean Jacob (b. 1925), and Simone—born to André Jacob and Yvonne Steinmetz Jacob . In 1924, André moved his family from Paris to Nice, where Simone was born on July 13, 1927. The son of a gas-company bookkeeper, he had graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts, spent most of the World War I as a prisoner of war in Germany, and became an architect, winning second prize in the Prix de Rome competition. Yvonne was the daughter of a Paris furrier and had trained as a chemist. To Yvonne's disappointment, André demanded that she give up her dream of becoming a research scientist. The move to Nice also hurt her, for she was a Parisienne to the fingertips. André, rigid, upright, and old-fashioned, tyrannized his family. Yvonne was a beautiful woman physically and morally, beloved by all who knew her, and very protective of her children. Beneath the charming exterior, however, Simone sensed a note of deep melancholy. The memory of her mother's situation was a critical stimulant to her later outspoken advocacy of married women's right to work outside the home. It fired her determination to practice her profession once her children were past infancy.
Simone clung to her mother until adolescence. Much more than her sisters, she stood up to her father. She wanted a closer relationship with him, but he believed in maintaining a "proper distance" between parent and child. Although their personalities differed, she and her two sisters were extremely close and well known and admired outside the home. André prospered, and the family lived a comfortable existence. By 1931, however, the Great Depression took hold in France, and commissions for villas on the Côte d'Azur began to dry up. The children were denied nothing important, but expenses had to be curtailed and the vacation home sold.
The Jacobses were determined to have their children well educated and cultured. They were reared on the classics; Simone retained a lifelong love of reading, Proust, Balzac, and Henry James being favorites. The only neglected cultural area was music, which André despised as an inferior diversion. Simone entered the Nice lycée for girls and pursued the classical curriculum (Greek, Latin, philosophy) to prepare for the baccalaureate examination, gateway to a university. She was intelligent enough but somewhat undisciplined. Quick to anger and to tenderness, she was at once sunny and serious, expansive and fragile. Like her sisters, she was active in scouting, which seems to have contributed significantly to her maturation.
Religion played no part in their lives. "My family was totally detached from Judaism," said Veil; she first heard the phrase "next year in Jerusalem" while at Auschwitz. French, and proud of it, the Jacobses were wholly assimilated. They did not deny their Jewish ancestry; they simply ignored it.
André disbelieved that the rise of the Nazis in Germany endangered Europe and Jews, much less patriotic French citizens. France's defeat in June 1940 came as a terrible shock and humiliation to him. A vague plan to escape to England via Spain died stillborn due to its complications. The family remained in Nice, which for now was in the Unoccupied Zone and thus out of the Germans' reach. Nice became a major destination for Jewish refugees. Things began to change when on October 3, 1940, the collaborationist regime set up at Vichy under Marshal Pétain began issuing anti-Jewish legislation. Amazingly, André continued to believe his family was in no real danger. Simone always thought otherwise. Matters turned grave after a decree (September 24, 1941) forbade Jews professional employment, thus depriving André of his living. When the Allies invaded North Africa in November 1942, the Germans and Italians occupied the rest of France. Nice fell into Italy's small zone. The Italian authorities showed no interest in cooperating with Germany's persecution of the Jews, although, as Veil later put it, their occupation was "no operetta." Life became extremely difficult as food and fuel dried up; day-long lines had to be endured to keep alive.
The last stage began after Italy's surrender on September 8, 1943. The Germans rapidly moved into the Italian zone and began roundups of Jews. Even André now felt menaced. The family dispersed in town, while Denise joined the Resistance. A Mme de Villeroy , professor of classical studies at the lycée, sheltered Simone. On November 12, the directress of the lycée told Simone she must no longer attend school because it would implicate everyone. She stubbornly continued to prepare for the examination, with students passing her material and professors grading her papers. Many years later, Veil harshly criticized a famous film about the occupation, Le Chagrin et la Pitié (1971), which implied that almost everybody was a collaborator—thus implying, too, that nobody was really guilty. On the contrary, she emphasized how many people in her experience took grave risks to shelter Jews, and how few were truly "salauds" (scoundrels).
The trap closed on March 30, 1944. While unwisely walking in public with a boyfriend two days after passing the baccalaureate examination, she was stopped by a Gestapo squad. Her false identity card read "Jacquier." "Jacquier, that's Jacob," said one. The boyfriend foolishly ran to Mme de Villeroy's to warn the family. He was followed, of course, and within hours all were in custody save André, who was found a dozen days later. How little most Jews knew even as late as 1944 is illustrated by the fact that Simone and her family felt a momentary sense of relief, thinking they would be sent to a camp somewhere merely to wait out the war. Yvonne even asked a friend to bring her a long list of items for the camp stay, including works by Racine, Molière, and Pascal.
From the Excelsior Hotel lockup in Nice, Simone, her sister Milou, and Yvonne were sent up to the Drancy depot at Paris. On April 13, they left Drancy in a cattle car on a train carrying 646 men and 834 women and children to Auschwitz, two nights and three days without food or water. (Jean and his father left Drancy on May 15 for Kovno and Reval and disappeared forever; Denise was arrested in June and sent to Ravensbrück, where she survived the war.) When they clambered from the train, an unknown woman whispered to Simone, "Say you're eighteen." Since all children under eighteen went straight to the gas chambers, the advice saved her life; her mature beauty fooled the officials.
The three were sent to the Birkenau camp—Auschwitz was a 20-square-mile complex—where they waited for two months before being selected for a work section rather than the gas chambers. The number 78651 was tattooed on Veil's arm. (She has never had it removed.) The labor was brutal, often pointless, 12-hour days digging ditches and building roads and railway lines. Food, clothing, and shelter were abominable. In July there was a request for eight or nine women to work in a Siemens plant, newly opened at Bobrek (another part of the complex), which made equipment for aircraft. A female Polish capo (Jewish guard) recommended Veil, telling her that a girl like her did not deserve to die. Simone insisted they include Yvonne and Milou; amazingly, she got her wish. For three months, they worked hauling soil, then as masons, and finally in the plant, which at least had a roof and heat.
Appalling as life was in Birkenau and Bobrek, worse followed. On January 17, 1945, with the Russians closing in, the Germans began moving their prisoners in hopes of continuing to use their labor. Some 31,894 (including 236 at Bobrek) began a 63-mile (102-km.) death march in bitter cold to Gleiwitz, where open coal cars awaited for a trip through Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany to the Bergen-Belsen camp outside Hamburg. The survivors arrived some time in February. Conditions at Belsen were beyond description: a giant mortuary where starvation and disease raged unchecked. Yvonne, Milou, and Simone fell ill with typhus. Around March 25, Yvonne, who
had endured with a fortitude and gentleness which awed all who knew her, died in Milou's arms. Three weeks later, on April 14, British soldiers arrived. Struck dumb by what they saw, they instantly quarantined the place for a month. Simone, working outside the wire at the moment, was not allowed in to join her sister and thus missed celebrating the liberation with her. It seemed to her like the last insult.
When asked once how she survived, Veil replied simply, "Luck." (Of the 75,000 Jews shipped from Drancy, only 2,500 returned.) Miraculously, the three had stayed together through the entire ordeal. Without mutual support, they probably would have perished. Surely Yvonne and Milou would have; they were too "good," too easily taken advantage of by others. Simone, the toughest, did things about which she later felt pangs of remorse: "To survive you had to have a certain aggressiveness." To her great anger, it was often hinted that female survivors had traded sex for favors. She denied it, adding that such accusations show no understanding of what the camps were really like.
"Those who have not lived through the deportation cannot truly understand it, no matter how earnestly they try," she said. She found portrayals like Sophie's Choice or the American documentary Holocaust (1979) "prettied up," sentimentalized, with selfless prisoners tenderly taking care of each other. "In truth we had become veritable beasts," she said. The worst aspect of the camps was the destruction of the dignity of all involved, both prisoners and guards. Psychological conditioning and fear had turned them into "robots."
Veil claimed she had been "marked" but not warped: "[I] assimilated it and integrated it into my life." It made her more perceptive about people individually and collectively; they can be by turns saints or beasts, and nobody is exempt. It fed both pessimism and optimism—pessimism because of the depravity she had witnessed, optimism because of the resources of "generosity, love, and vitality" she found in humans. The experience also made her fully conscious of her Jewish inheritance. She did not try to leave it behind. Also, as she observed among many survivors, it made her more "European" in outlook, readier to seek transnational ways to prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.
Simone arrived back in Paris on May 23, 1945. Ill physically and psychologically, she felt like a stranger: "Every day was a burden." She missed her mother terribly and clung to Milou, who had nearly died of typhus and debilitation. No welcome awaited in France. Liberation, the Resistance, and Charles de Gaulle were cheered to the skies. Denise was treated like a hero and invited everywhere, but not Simone and Milou. Simone acquired a certain permanent distaste for Gaullism because the general never made the least gesture to recognize the Jewish martyrs. Denise got Simone a month's stay in a Swiss recovery facility, but results were disappointing. Veil bore much pent-up anger which exploded now and then. A psychiatrist later noted, however, that unlike so many deportees, she could speak frankly and precisely about her experiences. Most of the time she showed an impassive front. People who had known her in Nice found her changed, "a veritable block of ice," according to one.
Despite these trials, Veil was determined to build a new life without delay. From early adolescence, she had dreamed of a career in law. In October 1945, she enrolled at the Faculty of Law at the Sorbonne and, not feeling fully occupied by legal studies, at the Institut d'Études Politiques. Behind her beauty and a distant air, people detected a touching sadness and vulnerability. A mutual friend brought her in touch with Antoine Veil, a fellow student at Law and the Institut. A year older than she, he was from a well-to-do non-practicing Jewish family in textile manufacture in Grenoble. In December 1943, he had crawled under the wire into Switzerland. After the Liberation, he returned to join the army and was demobilized on October 1, 1945.
Simone and Antoine were married on October 26, 1946, in a civil ceremony in Paris. She described him as someone with "a great serenity and a solid character. He was charming, impulsive, composed, but also rigid and intransigent … a passionate fighter." Like her father, he was possessive of her, a trait which often caused problems. A friend of Simone's described her as a marvelous companion but admitted, too, that it would be difficult to be her husband. Still, despite tensions, they fashioned a solid marriage, invariably consulting each other on all important matters.
Simone wanted children quickly to reconstruct a family. Jean was born on November 26, 1947, and Claude-Nicolas arrived in 1948, shortly after she and Antoine received their certificates from the Institut and their law licenses. Like Yvonne, she was an exceptionally devoted mother. She gave herself unreservedly to her children and shielded them when necessary from Antoine, who could be overly stern—again, much like her own father. Antoine moved ahead rapidly. On January 20, 1947, a leading minister, Pierre-Henri Teitgen, of the Christian socialist Popular Republican Movement (MRP), hired Antoine as a parliamentary attaché. When Teitgen left office in September 1948, Antoine joined the staff of another leading politician, Alain Poher (MRP), secretary of state at the Budget bureau. Poher in turn got him appointed as third officer at the consulate in Wiesbaden, Germany, starting January 1, 1950.
That Simone agreed to live in Germany astonished everybody, including Antoine. But her decision was in character. She could never pardon Germany (whatever that might mean), much less forget (or let anyone else forget) the Holocaust. But she believed that, for the sake of the children, France and Germany simply had no other choice now but to learn to live together. It was time to turn a page, time for constructive action. She preferred life to death.
The Veils lived in Wiesbaden in 1950–51 and then in Stuttgart in 1952. Antoine loved social life. Simone felt distinctly awkward early in their marriage, but at Wiesbaden she blossomed as a hostess in the rounds of entertaining expected in the consular service. Meanwhile, Antoine decided to try for admission to the new École National d'Administration (ENA), designed to be the crown jewel of the preparatory system for the highest State posts. He failed on his first try but passed on his second, in 1952.
Shortly before Antoine's success, Simone suffered a cruel blow. At Meaux, while returning to Paris on August 14, 1952, from a visit to the Veils in Stuttgart, Milou (who was now a psychologist) and her young son, Luc, died in an automobile accident. Veil could only say, "It's unjust." It took all her strength to climb out of this darkness. She could never speak of Milou again except to her closest friends, and always with tears.
Simone went with Antoine to Safi, Morocco, in 1953 for his six-month stage as civil comptroller, and then for six months at the prefecture in Châteauroux. In March 1954, their third child, Pierre-François, arrived, the same year that Antoine graduated a splendid sixth from the ENA. He chose the Valhalla of the French bureaucracy, the Inspectorate of Finance, and began a brilliant career in State service and then in the private sector. His positions furnished the couple with a host of connections to the country's elite.
Simone herself did internships in an attorney's office and then at the Paris prosecutor's office (the parquet). She wanted to be a trial lawyer, but Antoine would not hear of it. The issue caused the only serious battle between them, she said later. She was determined not to share her mother's fate as a frustrated professional. Antoine finally relented, suggesting she might become a judge, a newly opened occupation for women. She could still defend the weak, which she had dreamed of doing. At length she gave way, set to work, and in 1956 passed the examination for the magistracy.
Because of family considerations, she did not want a posting to the provinces, where junior judges usually started. Antoine pulled some strings; she remained in Paris, but at an unprestigious branch of the Justice ministry, the Administration of Prisons. Given her background, the choice seemed foreordained. From 1957 to 1964, she inspected prisons and made recommendations regarding prisoners' rights, sentencing, and parole. Her tours took her all over the country; she later said she had probably seen more prisons than anyone in France. She often found conditions appalling and the mindset of the administration antediluvian, "worthy of Dachau or Buchenwald." She believed in punishment but rejected automatic sentences unfitted to individual cases. She was strict, however—some even said harsh—about parole: good behavior alone was insufficient if the release posed any credible threat to society. At the same time, she adamantly insisted that prison was meant to be only a deprivation of freedom, not an injury to one's fundamental dignity. She fought for equal treatment of men and women. (Women habitually were subjected to needless humiliations.) With tuberculosis rates running high, she got a mobile X-ray unit instituted. She also helped establish psychiatric services. She was charged, too, with starting educational programs for young prisoners, and after a long fight with the Old Guard she got a librarian's position approved.
One of the great figures of France and Europe today.
—Sir Michael Jay
Veil worked under trying conditions. She felt the strain on her family, where much of her children's care fell to maids. She was a doting mother when she was at home, but provincial tours and evening social engagements took a toll. The boys were treated as adults from an early age and could be hard to handle. At work, she found herself the only woman (save for typists) in the central administration, with all that implied in the way of cold receptions and male condescension in a notoriously misogynous service. Go to lunch with a colleague twice, she remarked wryly, and he thought you were ready to go to bed with him. In time, she won sincere respect by her competence and willingness to assume responsibilities. Her colleagues discovered that her being a woman did not mean she was a hand-wringing "bleeding heart." Notably, she exhibited traits which remained in the years to come: humane but strict, a reformer while also respectful of traditional structures and authority.
The vicious war for Algerian independence (1954–62) drew her in when the ethnologist Germaine Tillion recommended to de Gaulle's minister of Justice, the able, humane Edmond Michelet, that Simone Veil would be an excellent choice to inspect the prisons in Algeria and address the problem of what to do about some 600 prisoners condemned to death for "terrorism." Veil sent back a confidential report to Michelet roundly condemning prison conditions, which included use of torture. She worked to get the cases converted from criminal to political offenses, hence not subject to the death penalty, and took charge of a risky mission to transfer some noted female detainees to safer confinement in France. Among them was Djamila Boupacha , a 22-year-old woman accused of planting a bomb, whose case had been made into a cause célèbre by Simone de Beauvoir . Veil's experiences converted her to the cause of Algerian independence, but she never countenanced violent opposition to the war.
After Jean Foyer succeeded Michelet at Justice, a turn to tougher policies in the prisons left Veil in mounting distress. She finally took Antoine's advice and asked for a transfer. In 1964, she was assigned to the Department of Civil Affairs and assigned to a committee writing a new law on adoptions. Existing legislation, based on a 1939 statute, was a hopeless tangle. Veil became the main drafter of the Adoption Law of 1966, which she regarded as one of her life's proudest achievements. President Charles de Gaulle and Premier Georges Pompidou were interested in this legislation, so she spent much time shuttling between the ministry, the Élysée Palace, and the Hôtel Matignon. When the bill went before Parliament, she sat with the minister as technical counsellor. Also, with pediatrician Dr. Michel Soulé and Professor Clément Launay, Veil authored a book on the subject.
The law—which became a model elsewhere, notably in Belgium and Italy, where she and Soulé later conducted seminars—put the child's interests first and gave adopted children the same rights as natural children. A key provision dealt with abandonment. Once a specified delay expired, the child could not be reclaimed from adoption. The law also opened the way later for dealing with children conceived artificially. While completing this huge labor, Veil showed herself to be a shrewd pragmatist. When de Gaulle flatly insisted that couples with legitimate children not be allowed to adopt, she inserted a provision granting a right of dispensation—to the president alone. She could settle for half a loaf, as she would show when she drafted the abortion law some years later.
Because of her interest in judicial reform, Veil joined the Magistrates' Union during the May uprising of 1968. She had already belonged to an informal society of like-minded reformers, the Association Vendôme, where she was noted as a moderate, careful thinker, and she found the uprising rather exciting. (The Veils lived in the student quarter.) Antoine, in big-business administration since 1964, took a dim view of it. Simone left the Union after a few months, put off by violence and its politicization and frivolous thinking.
Simone Veil was becoming known, as was her husband. They were seen in "Tout Paris" circles and became close friends of Marcel Bleustein-Blanchet, the father of modern advertising in France, at whose estate on the Côte d'Azur they spent some vacations. When René Pleven, whom she greatly respected, became minister of Justice in 1969 under the new president, Pompidou, he appointed her to his personal staff as a technical counsellor. She had general oversight of staff functions, handled press relations, and prepared the amnesty law. But the hours proved long, and her youngest son was feeling abandoned. After nine months, she asked for a reassignment, e.g., as director of Prisons. Pleven made counteroffers. Finally, on March 14, 1970, he named her secretary-general of the Conseil Supérieur de la Magistrature. The Council supervises the judges, rules on promotions, gives the president legal advice, and, before the death sentence was abolished, handled death-sentence appeals. Veil found preparing agendas and minutes and sitting in meetings dull work despite the position's prestige. (She was the first woman to hold it.) But it gave her a perch from which to observe even more of the workings of France's huge central bureaucracy. She filled out her time by serving on several committees, including those on women's labor and the women's information center, the joint committee of the press and Justice on secrecy of pretrial examinations (instruction), and (from 1972) the board of the Office of French Radio and Television (ORTF).
On May 27, 1974, while dining out with friends, she received a telephone call from the new premier-designate, Jacques Chirac, asking her to become minister of Health. She accepted the next day, becoming the first woman to be a full minister (not just a secretary of state) since Germaine Poinso-Chapuis headed the Ministry of Public Health and Population in 1947–48. Despite having been proposed by a women's magazine, Marie-Claire (February 1973), as premier in an all-female "dream" cabinet, Veil was unknown to the public at large. Because of her prior positions, her knowledge of Parliament's ways and personnel was far more extensive than often realized. Still, to many deputies and senators she was merely a name. She had been put up for the position, in fact, as a result of complicated maneuverings amongst the various factions of the government preparing for the introduction of reform to the antique, largely unenforced law of 1920 banning abortion. (A bill to this effect had died in Parliament in 1973, but new president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, sincerely impressed by the feminist movement, was resolved to change the law.) Apparently, a stunned Veil knew nothing of these palavers before the phone call. She had never seriously thought of being a minister. Antoine urged her to accept, asking only that she try to see that protocol rules did not condemn him to the company of the "second fiddles" at State functions. She kept the promise and succeeded more often than not, making it a rule to be seen to defer to him when in public.
In some ways she was an ideal choice to deal with an abortion bill, being a woman and a judge, not a member of Parliament with political baggage and constituents to please. On the other hand, she was Jewish (a handicap in dealing with Catholics on a religiously sensitive issue) and had no prior experience as a minister. Nor was she especially conversant with the Health ministry, although she had dealt with it regarding adoption, children's services, and psychiatric care. Anyhow, given the importance of the impending abortion struggle, the ministry's day-today functioning would fall to the professional staff for now. The bill consumed her first six months in office and provoked arguably the most wrenching purely legislative battle France had seen since the Second World War. It also fixed her public image permanently.
Abortion—which distressed Veil personally—had ballooned into a major issue by the early 1970s. On April 5, 1971, Delphine Seyrig, Françoise Fabian , Simone de Beauvoir, Christiane Rochefort , and 339 other prominent women stated in a manifesto that they had undergone abortions. Some 330 physicians published a manifesto on February 3, 1973, saying they had performed abortions. Several high-profile court cases agitated public opinion, notably a trial in Grenôble in May 1973 of Dr. Annie Feray-Martin for performing an abortion on a minor. Estimates of the number of abortions in France ranged from 300,000 to 500,000 annually, with about 300 women dying. The 1920 law was in tatters, derided in all quarters. Nobody, observed Giscard, really would imprison a woman for having an abortion. Yet opposition was fervent among conservatives (who held a parliamentary majority) and among many Catholics of all political persuasions. Moreover, radical feminists wanted no law at all, claiming women should control their bodies absolutely as a matter of right. Most of the Left in Parliament, while favoring a new law, did not want to support a Right-led government. Chirac, in tight quarters, agreed to support a bill only after Veil assured him it would "respect life." When Giscard said in his first news conference (July 22, 1974) that it was high time to revise the 1920 law, the war was on.
Veil set to work. Unlike the radical feminists, she believed abortion should be legally regulated because the door otherwise would remain open to abortion mills, scams, and "angel makers"—all of which threatened women's health. The emphasis on health would win support. It also made her ministry, rather than Justice, the logical drafter of the bill. Giscard thoroughly agreed. Veil believed the final decision must rest with the woman, but with provisions to ensure the decision would be well informed and thoughtful. Her fundamental purpose was to help women in distress. She rejected, however, a proposal to have a doctor sign a certificate of distress because "distress" could not be clearly defined in law; conscience would have to rule. She refused to advocate the Left's "unsellable" idea (as she saw it) that a woman may decide to abort because a pregnancy is inconvenient. To her, a bill asserting a woman's right to control her body invited defeat; her only request of Giscard and Chirac was to keep Françoise Giroud , the secretary of state for the Condition of Women—and an outspoken feminist who had published an article in L'Express in 1972 advocating "free abortion"—off the scene. In short, she refused to be drawn into theological or theoretical issues, e.g., about when a human life begins. She would rest the case on pragmatic considerations focused on women's health.
The original bill contained the following provisions: (1) it would be voted on again after a five-year trial; (2) a woman in distress could ask for an abortion before the end of the tenth week; (3) the decision would be the woman's alone but only after two preliminary consultations with a physician and a social worker; (4) abortion could not be used as a birth-control measure; (5) it could be performed only by a physician in a hospital; (6) a physician could not be compelled to perform one (the "conscience clause"); (7) it could not be paid for by public health insurance; and (8) implementation would fall to State health officers, not municipal commissions. Veil inserted the "conscience clause" in an unsuccessful attempt to mollify the archbishop of Paris, who had issued a scathing denunciation (October 9). As for non-reimbursement, she regretted it but knew the public would be shocked if abortions were paid for when some other procedures and drugs were not. But she made provision to regulate the expense strictly.
Prospects brightened when a bill on contraceptives, which expanded access and information and treated the Pill like any other drug, breezed through (the law of December 4, 1974). Abortion-bill lobbying became intense. Veil entertained every member of the majority at lunch or dinner at the ministry and, as did Chirac and Michel Poniatowski, the powerful minister of the Interior-designate who had pushed for her appointment, put aides to work buttonholing deputies. She appeared in a television interview; although nervous and sometimes groping for words, she made a favorable impression as a sincere, well-informed, and unpretentious woman—in the public's eyes not a "typical" politician, male or female. (It took her quite some time to overcome a fear of committing a gaffe which could force her into an embarrassing resignation.)
The first hurdle was the committee that would report the bill to the National Assembly. Veil proved she could be a clever tactician. She and her supporters in the committee wanted Dr. Henry Berger elected rapporteur (floor manager for the committee's version). But he was such an outspoken partisan of the bill that pushing him forward would look like a taunt to the committee's hostile minority. So she quietly sent word to her supporters to stay away when the rapporteur was elected. She then remained silent when the opposition chose one of theirs, Alexandre Bolo, who promptly presented seven hostile amendments. Veil's supporters now showed up and defeated them all. Bolo felt obliged to resign. They then elected Berger. Veil later admitted, "I've always loved ruses, foreseeing moves in advance."
She appeared before the committee on November 19, unruffled, master of the subject, impossible to bait. To ease passage, she accepted two amendments: husbands could be "associated" in the decision, and minors must have parental consent. She did not like doing it. It was part of her contradictory nature to be a moderate consensus-seeker while resenting having to compromise. The committee approved the bill 22 to 11 with 2 abstentions. (Members of the government's majority voted 13 to 7 against; the socialists and communists furnished 15 of the 22 favorable votes.)
Floor debate in the Assembly began on November 26. At the entrances to the Palais-Bourbon, bands of opponents from "Let Them Live," led by priests, distributed graphic literature, waved prayer books, and hurled insults. Debate lasted three days and two nights, thirty hours in all. Seventy-seven speakers held forth after Veil's opening speech. She spoke for an hour, calmly if sometimes awkwardly. She made a sympathetic image: a small woman alone at the rostrum before an almost wholly male audience (barely a dozen of the 490 members were women), stating her case with a touching sincerity.
It is the disorder [in the law] that must be ended. It is the injustice which we must agree to end. I say this with all my conviction: abortion should remain the exception, the last recourse for situations with no way out. I would like to share with you a woman's conviction—excuse me for doing so before this Assembly composed almost exclusively of men: no woman resorts to abortion with a light heart. It is enough to listen to women. It is a drama and remains a drama.
Chirac, despite his reservations, supported her with a steady presence. The famously shrewd president of the Assembly, Edgar Faure, garbed in formal attire to underscore the importance of the occasion, also lent support by foiling obstructive tactics and moving expeditiously through 170 amendments.
Speeches ran the gamut from reasoned essays to passionate harangues. The French National Assembly is one of the world's most testing venues for a debater. Simone Veil stood her ground, answering coolly or with heat as needed. A number of opposition speakers alluded to Nazi doctors, torture, euthanasia, and vivisection. "Abortion is legal genocide!" thundered René Feit. Veil lost her composure only once, when Jean-Marie Daillet spoke of tossing embryos into garbage cans and crematories (sic). Tears welled in her eyes and she dropped her head, silently sobbing. After she recovered, she made only a short reply. (Daillet later privately apologized … saying he didn't know she had been a deportee.) Denouncing such tactics on another occasion, she retorted, "Guilt by association is a technique of intellectual terrorism which has no place in a debate where each finds himself facing his conscience and his responsibility."
Three incidents threatened to defeat the bill. She accepted an amendment saying abortions could take place in private (mostly Catholic) hospitals only if the director had not refused such interventions. In effect, this meant that physicians willing to perform abortions could not do so in Catholic hospitals. The Left howled in protest and threatened to sink the bill. During a quick recess, Veil persuaded Gaston Defferre, the Socialist leader, that it was necessary to appease the bishops in this manner or risk defeat. The amendment passed, 294–105. Another close call came when a deputy slyly noted the absence from the ministerial bench of Jean Lecanuet, minister of Justice-designate and leader of the Catholic Centrists who had quietly agreed not to oppose the bill. Smelling trouble, Veil instantly went to the rostrum to inform the Assembly that he was in Brussels on official business. The next day he returned and, amidst shouts of "Traitor!" from the opposition, delivered an eloquent speech in favor of the bill. Lecanuet's support swung critical undecided votes in the Center, especially among moderate Catholics. The final crisis came on Jean Foyer's amendment, the only one of the 170 which threatened the whole bill and was thus put to a ballot, not raised hands. It was defeated, 286 to 178. Final passage thus became a formality. On November 29 at 3:40 am the bill passed, 284 to 189, with solid support from the Left and enough from the government's majority. With Poniatowski and Lecanuet lobbying hard, the Senate, to some surprise, passed the bill two weeks later without much ado. Final votes came on December 20. On January 17, 1975, the loi Veil (as it was quickly dubbed) was promulgated.
When Simone Veil returned home after the National Assembly victory, a magnificent bouquet from Chirac greeted her. During the preceding weeks she had received flowers and encouraging letters from around the country. But these were drowned in a flood of letters and phone calls, most of them anonymous and soaked in anti-Semitism. Graffiti defaced her hallway walls, and when she arrived at the Palais-Bourbon she was greeted by jostling crowds waving prayer books to "exorcise" her. She kept her sanity through the ordeal, and she had won. Poniatowski declared that no man could have gotten the bill through. Said Giscard, "She passed the unpassable" in making France the first Catholic country to legalize abortion. France-Soir spoke for the bulk of the press when it concluded, "This woman is a rock."
The loi Veil came back for review in 1979 and was passed again after noisy debates. In 1983, insurance reimbursement was added. Simone Veil disliked the law's nickname; she found personal identification with something as repellent as abortion disagreeable. But she was helpless to prevent her name and image from being fixed in the public's consciousness by her first six months in office. Writes Michel Sarazin, she "retained all her reasons to please: she appeared beautiful but not provocative, competent but not a technocrat, tolerant but not hesitant, honest but not naïve, courageous but not belligerent, touching but not weepy." It was an image any politician could envy. Yet it also stereotyped her as an icon, the people's "platonic love" (as someone put it), too far above most politicians to make her seem a credible participant in the rough-and-tumble fights for high office.
Veil served as minister of Health for five consecutive years in the cabinets of Chirac and Raymond Barre, an unusually long tenure in the same post. In 1977, the Social Security Administration was added to her responsibilities. Thus, almost the entire task of directing France's mammoth program of social services fell to her. She did not shirk her duties; indeed, she was a workhorse (and expected as much from subordinates). But by the spring of 1979 she was worn out. Her task had been made more onerous by the spiraling expense of the programs due mainly to a great surge of inflation by the mid-1970s. The Right resented her criticism of powerful interests, privileges, and wasteful spending, while the Left called her a "réactionnaire" for reining in benefits. She often found herself at odds, too, with the bigwigs of medicine about priorities. She said once she had not appreciated how strenuous a minister's job is, how intense the pressure of unending responsibility. At the same time, a close acquaintance noted she had little by little acquired a certain taste for power and a growing discomfort with jokes at the expense of people exercising it.
To the mantra "Health has no price" she was the first minister to reply "Health has a cost." She cut back the purchase of heavy equipment and instituted tighter accounting in medical administration to combat an "always more" psychology. With huge hospital-building programs devouring budgets while the length of stays was declining, she put a lid on expansion of the number of beds. Convinced that continued rapid growth of the number of physicians would increase demands for services, reduce their incomes, and lower the quality of service, she slightly lowered medical school acceptances each year and introduced a "needs of the nation" clause in the budget which remained after she left office. The hospitals and doctors howled, of course, given all the vested interests involved. She also sought to slow the rise of drug prices by hacking at waste and preaching restraint. It took years of wars with three other ministries to bring drugs under a single authority. On the other hand, she increased budgets for medical research and bailed out the Pasteur Institute. She improved conditions for the aged, sick, and handicapped. Probably her most appreciated reforms were a systematic abolition of hospital wards (where conditions were notoriously bad) and a general improvement of hospital surroundings. And for nurses, who were resorting to strikes because of low pay and understaffing, she increased nursing schools and pay scales and instituted a bonus (still called the prime Veil).
One of her most noticed initiatives was France's first campaign to reduce tobacco use despite the fact that the State's tobacco monopoly is a major source of revenue. Ironically, she was herself a three-pack-a-day smoker. (A celebrated photo showed her, cigarette stuck in her mouth, receiving a light from Chirac.) She reduced her consumption to one pack per day and ceased smoking in public. She pushed another loi Veil, this one restricting advertising, extending no-smoking areas (including the cabinet room at the Élysée), and educating the public about tobacco's effects. In arguing her case, she was not naive about life's risks: "Knowing what one risks is essential to true liberty [of choice]." The budget for prevention shot from 1 million francs in 1975 to 19 million in 1978. The results, however, proved mixed at best.
A cabinet reshuffle in 1977 brought the direction of Social Security to her portfolio. Not until after the legislative elections of 1978 was the Social Security deficit addressed despite Chirac's promise to do so in 1975. It remained a puzzle, practical and political. She tried or advocated several expedients, raising this tax or lowering that. But for 1979 the deficit rocketed to 6 billion, not the projected 2.2 billion. Just before she left office she instituted a Commission of Accounts for Social Security which would report annually to Parliament. Illustrative of her quandary is the fact that among other things she expanded family benefits, lengthened maternity leaves, increased prenatal care, and improved the plight of single mothers—all praiseworthy causes almost impossible to square with deficit reduction. The succeeding minister blamed her for the problem. She had been the first to attack it but lacked enough time. Her measures were basically continued.
Veil's political activity during her tenure reflected both her dislike of party politics and her standing at the top of the polls, which at its peak (1977) reached an astonishing 70%. Her relations with Giscard, Chirac, and Barre were never easy. Toward Giscard she was loyal, never criticizing him publicly. She admired his mental powers but found it impossible to communicate with him. Nor did he ever understand her. In all her time in office, he never telephoned her more than about once a year. It was said he feared her, partly because she would sometimes drop mordant, unexpected remarks in cabinet meetings. She concluded that his "reforming" phase had petered out by 1976 and wondered sometimes why she was staying on. Chirac's was a different case. They felt a genuine mutual affection, but they grated on each other when it came to politics. She regarded him as a fine chap but too much the politician, a weak man easily tempted by demagoguery. Even so, his resignation, on August 25, 1976, pained her. As for Barre, his successor, Antoine Veil described their relations as "complicated." She admired his competence but chafed at his smugness. Yet when she found herself for the first time in flat opposition to Giscard—on restriction of immigration by using quotas (a word which horrified her)—Barre, with principle at stake, proved a firm ally.
Her most striking political involvement concerned her "candidacy" to be the first popularly elected mayor of Paris (March 20, 1977). Rumors said she was a prospect for mayor in Bourges, Orléans, Belfort, and elsewhere. (In France, politicians often combine a mayorship with another office such as deputy or senator.) Nice was the only one which could interest her, but its mayor was very popular. The only one, that is, except for the greatest prize: Paris. Giscard instituted popular election for the office and, of course, wanted one of "his own" elected. To make an excessively complicated story short, in the struggle between Giscard and Chirac over control of Paris, Veil's name surfaced as a possible compromise. She was interested—enough, indeed, to make quiet preparations to run even though Antoine would have to resign his seat on the Paris Municipal Council. But did Giscard really want her? In any event, she refused to go to him in the fall of 1976 to state her intentions or probe his. Evidence suggests that he was only using her name in his chess match with Chirac. She later claimed this was the case. In the end, Chirac himself ran against a Giscardien and won.
As an administrator, Veil was a hands-on type, criticized sometimes for doing too much herself. She retorted that if she didn't do it, things just didn't move along. Her staff, diversely composed, stayed fiercely loyal and almost unchanged despite her hard-driving ways and occasional explosions of temper. Disrespectful of protocol, she cultivated good relations with the ministry's minor employees, who loved her. She could be too slow to decide but was helped by her training as a judge. She was a stout defender of her "turf" and of the rights of women. Too many women in government, she maintained, are not tough enough in dealing with men, especially their "crafty" paternalism, which she would not tolerate. Women must combat the popular notion that their decisions are mostly the product of emotion, caprice, or guile. At the same time, she took care to present a chic feminine image, invariably stylishly garbed in dresses or suits loaned to her by Chanel. In short, she proved to be on the whole an effective, highly presentable administrator, certainly not to be trifled with. She set an important example for both France and Europe of what a woman could do in high office.
Given her popularity, Chirac and Barre wanted to use her in the 1978 Assembly elections. She declined Chirac's invitation to join the Rally for the Republic (RPR), his version of the old Gaullist party. She consented, however, to open and close the campaign with television appeals on behalf of Giscard's and Barre's Union for French Democracy (UDF). But she would do no more. This aggravated Barre, and their relations deteriorated. As noted, by 1979 she was tired and ready to quit. As she remarked once, "I'm ill-at-ease everywhere, as much with the moralistic right as with the sectarian left, as much with the rich as with the poor." As André Rousselet put it, "Simone has consented to be an accident."
Providentially, by the spring of 1979, when she was poised to resign at the first suitable opportunity, an ideal prospect presented itself. The European Parliament, a body chosen by the parliaments of the (then) nine members of the European Community (which includes the Common Market), was being doubled in size (to 410 members) and election changed to direct popular vote. Giscard, ever alert to seize an advantage in the feud with Chirac, decided to emphasize "Europe." He needed someone to head his UDF-based list of candidates, a deeply committed "European" but not too involved in party politics. Simone Veil, still a poll-leader, fitted the bill wonderfully. She accepted his offer on the spot.
Suddenly launched now into her first personal campaign, she conducted herself well, even though she dreaded large public meetings and was uncomfortable on television, if less so with journalists. After a disastrous attempt at reading a fuzzy typescript in Marseille, she memorized speeches. She spoke in a level tone, seriously, attempting no oratorical flights, and held her own in debates with other candidates. Typically, she refused at first to allow her poster to include a photo of her. She finally relented under urgent pleas; the one chosen, an informal picture of her on vacation, proved a hit, embellishing her image as a straight-talking, unpretentious, sincere, "ordinary" woman, "la petite mère Veil." On June 10, 1979, her Union for France in Europe (UFE) list drew 27.5% of the votes, topping Mitterrand's Socialists (23.5%), Georges Marchais' Communists (20.5%), and Chirac's RPR, a distant fourth (16.2%).
Giscard was not done yet. He now wanted her elected as the Parliament's first president. This would symbolize his estimate of France's deserved place in the new Europe and confirm the Franco-German axis he was promoting through his close ties with the German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. In Parliament, the conservatives held the majority—a combination of Liberals (in the European sense, i.e., capitalist free-traders and social moderates), British Conservatives, and Christian Democrats/Socialists. As an unpartisan, politically moderate Jewish woman and Auschwitz survivor, Veil had great symbolic appeal for European unity. But she was also "the Abortionist," making her a hard sell among Christian Democrats. A month of feverish lobbying produced a deal which included Veil's election as a Liberal to half the five-year term, a German Christian Democrat to succeed her for the remainder, with lesser posts and committee chairs spread around to pacify sundry blocs. In a critical move, she won the support of a key Italian—the Italians were outspokenly unhappy with talk of a Franco-German axis—Massimo Silvestro, secretary-general of the Liberal group, thus torpedoing the candidacy of Luxemburg's Gaston Thorn, president of the Federation of Liberal European Parties. At the last moment, however, Chirac's RPR put forward one of theirs, Christian de La Marlène, offering a tortured explanation that since the conservatives had a majority, the RPR did not want to be blamed if Veil lost, the ballot being secret. On July 17, Veil was opposed by La Marlène and three Italian leftists. She fell nine votes short of the required absolute majority. On the second ballot, after La Marlène and one Italian had dropped out, she won an absolute majority by three votes.
In her inaugural speech the next day, Veil vowed to be the president of "the whole assembly." She pleaded for a Europe "of solidarity, independence, and cooperation" which would address the three most pressing issues: peace, freedom, and economic well-being (unemployment was high). It was a highly charged moment for her. In an interview given to the Associated Press in October, she dissected its meaning:
As a Jew, as a concentration camp survivor, as a woman, you feel very much that you belong to a minority that has been bullied for a long time. As for the deportation, what remains with you most is the memory of humiliation, and that's a feeling many women have, too, of trampled dignity…. If this Parliament has a Jew, a woman, for its president, it means everyone has the same rights.
Her term got off to a rocky start. She could be undiplomatic, had obstructive opponents, and lacked a solid group of supporters, even from France, where Giscard inexplicably now ignored her. At the outset, she did not know all the intricacies of the European Community, whose operations were directed simultaneously from Brussels, Luxemburg, and Strasbourg. Fortunately, she was a fast learner. She found the bureaucracy even more frustrating than France's, if that were possible, and blew up enough to confirm the stories preceding her arrival. Fluent in no foreign language, she suffered further annoyance in the translation delays caused by seven official languages. Her most substantive frustration stemmed from the limited powers the Parliament could exercise. It could amend and even reject the Community's budget, but it had no legislative powers equal to conventional parliaments. Its main duties were (1) to supervise the European Commission (the top executive body, appointed not by it but by the governments) and force it (but only by a two-thirds vote) to resign if things ever came to such a pass; and (2) to provide a forum for the airing of general European concerns. From the beginning she worked to expand these powers and revise the body's rules so that very small numbers of members could not obstruct business. She obtained rule changes but never could get the Parliament's prerogatives extended. Yet by the end of her term she had succeeded through great labor in transforming a "club" into a genuine assembly. Unfortunately, her immediate successor lost most of the ground she had gained.
Veil led a busy, sometimes exhilarating life. There was the hard work of presiding over the Parliament (at which she got better), chairing meetings, and conferring with dignitaries. And there was travel, a great deal of it, not just around Europe but in the world at large, where she was greeted as "Madame Europe." She had always enjoyed travel. Among her destinations were Venezuela, Africa, Japan, Israel, Egypt, Australia, and China. In January 1980, she visited the United States, where she caused a flap back in France by stoutly supporting President Jimmy Carter's boycott of the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet Union's actions in Afghanistan: "Politicians [e.g., Carter] must take responsibility. Actions of this kind are not neutral, they commit those who make decisions. And I believe the games cannot be considered separate from political life." She thought the affair might help teach young people "what responsibility really is."
Honors rained down. In 1975, Princeton had awarded her an honorary degree; likewise the Weizmann Institute in 1976. While president she received degrees in 1980 from Bar Ilan, Yale, Cambridge, and Edinburgh and in 1981 Georgetown and Urbino. More followed in succeeding years. Likewise with prizes: the Onassis Foundation Athena Prize (1980) and the Charlemagne and Louise Weiss Foundation prizes in 1981. She also was invited into numerous organizations, her most satisfying being the UN commission on humanitarian issues.
Her speeches and conversations constantly promoted European institutional integration and common action on problems of the environment, employment, and women's rights. She wanted the Community to extend its powers and was hostile to the veto rights held by particular nations. She especially emphasized Europe as a haven of democratic values and rich culture. She wanted to make it a useful counterweight in the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. She also encouraged greater French participation in the Common Market and promoted economic unity to make Europe competitive with the United States and Japan.
According to the deal struck in 1979, Veil's half-term would end in January 1982. It was clear, however, that Egon Klepsch, the "designated" German Christian-Democrat successor, had lost ground among the right-wing majority. Veil's name came up as a compromise. But Chirac's RPR continued to support Klepsch. On January 19, the first two ballots yielded no winner. (If one were thinking ahead, on a fourth ballot only a plurality would be needed.) When emissaries appeared urging her to put up her name, she hesitated. It is alleged that she warned the RPR floor leader that a leftist, the Dutch Socialist Pieter Dankert, would win but that she could beat him. The RPR, however, stayed with Klepsch. Moreover, Martin Bangemann, president of the Liberal group (of which she was a member), appealed to her not to run. So she remained silent. To general surprise, Dankert won on the third ballot.
Once more, she had passed up an opportunity to win if she had made a strong effort. Why? Pride, again, it would seem—not wanting to risk a rejection. And a distaste for behaving like other politicians. Her candidacy would have been caused by disunion, whereas she had always preached unity. Furthermore, she would have had to accept some votes from the Left, even the Communists. The "betrayal" by the RPR hurt, too, practically and personally. Because of the RPR's attitude, she had never had the support of a united French delegation. Giscard and Barre, too, had failed to aid her during her term for reasons never made clear. Not until 1981, after Mitterrand succeeded Giscard as president, did she receive an invitation to a full-dress dinner at the Élysée, an honor accorded her in every other capital.
The Parliament applauded her warmly when she stepped down, a contrast to its rather cool reception in 1979. She returned to the ranks now as an ordinary member, but much sought after. She became president of the Legal Affairs Committee (1982–84), which did important work on human rights. She was freer now to be a player in domestic politics, but she assumed the role with her usual caution. In 1981, she had consented, reluctantly, to write an article supporting Giscard against Mitterrand in the presidential election. It was tepid at best. She later said she had become convinced Giscard would lose.
While strongly opposed to Mitterrand as a person and sharply critical of many of his policies, she also gave measured support to many others. She was, as she put it, a "reformist" rather than a conservative. She backed the government rather than the Right in both keeping basic social services and cutting costs in the social security administration; allowing more flexible working hours (a boon to women); ending capital punishment; reimbursing abortion expenses; putting more money into research and culture; supporting plans for the steel industry and for funding the "euromissile"; and opposing any drastic curbing of the role of the State in industry. (She approved of Margaret Thatcher 's industrial policy in Britain but thought it "too tough" for France.) On the other hand, she despised "ideological" reforms in education, the press, and hospitals, and scorned class-war talk. She flayed the anti-inflation policy as incoherent. As for the Cold War, she was hawkish, believing France (and Europe) should support the United States and President Reagan more consistently, e.g., in the Grenada affair. In general, especially in domestic affairs, she thought the Left was too sectarian, too rigid, nursing a "religious war" mentality: "There is a kind of pretention to a monopoly of virtue which is altogether insupportable."
The Right had its problems. On July 9, 1983, a ten-year-old Muslim boy, Tafik Ouannes, died when an overwrought neighbor fired a gun into a noisy Ramadan celebration. Chirac used the tragedy to denounce clandestine immigration. This aroused Veil's fears that the Right was becoming polluted by Jean-Marie Le Pen's immigrant-hating National Front (FN), a proto-fascist party. (FN thugs had attacked one of her election meetings back in 1979; afterward she had marched over to the party's headquarters and denounced them as a pack of "small-bore SS" types who didn't scare her because she had known the real thing.) Thus, when in September 1983 in a by-election at Dreux (Eure-et-Loir) the RPR and UDF agreed to accept the support of the FN in a runoff, she excoriated the decision and said if she were a voter there she would abstain and let the Left win. A national uproar ensued, with many celebrities coming to her support. But not the Right's bigwigs. In the end she lost her fight and the RPR-UDF-FN won—a bitter disappointment to her.
The Dreux affair became the prologue to what she would regard as the one political act she truly regretted: her agreement to allow Robert Hersant a place on her list in the European Parliament election in 1984. By herself she had persuaded the UDF and the RPR to offer a union list. Chirac was in a "European" mode, while the UDF knew it couldn't win much without her. Besides, the move would help prepare the ground for the legislative elections in 1986. Veil thus headed the 81-member union list, but her partners took "revenge" by letting her pick only one co-lister and insisting that Robert Hersant be included and placed 23rd, thus quite likely to be elected. Hersant had become the Fifth Republic's most powerful press lord, e.g., owner of Le Figaro, which Giscard and Chirac had helped him buy in 1977. But he had a Vichyite past, having written for a Pétainist paper articles with anti-Semitic connotations. The Liberation nevertheless had whitewashed him, saying he had "aided" the Resistance. Veil objected vehemently to Hersant's inclusion, but she stopped short of handing Chirac and Barre an ultimatum. It might have worked since her partners dearly wanted her name at the top. Instead, she spent many uncomfortable hours during the campaign explaining to the media and outraged leftists how she could stomach Hersant. She served up lame arguments to the effect that she shouldn't be expected to be more moral than others on the list, or that President Mitterrand himself also had some links with Vichy. For the first time in a decade, Antoine felt obliged to speak out in public to help her.
The UDF was as usual disorganized, and the RPR did not provide the support she expected. She was disappointed on June 17, 1984, that the list did not pull 50% of the electorate, winning only 43%. Still, it ran first and got 41 of the 82 seats in the French delegation. This success proved larger than any the coalition would win thereafter. She had strengthened the Right's ties to "Europe," achieved an entente among the French delegates of the Right at Strasbourg, and administered a serious check to the Left which would help in 1986. But Chirac never did thank her.
To her chagrin, the Hersant affair made her appear far more rightist than she really was. She also was disturbed that Le Pen's list got 11%, a breakthrough. She had decided to ignore him during the campaign, perhaps because of lingering bitterness over her failure at Dreux; but this appeared now to be a mistake. Her warnings to the Right about Le Pen, however, began sounding prophetic. Chirac and Barre came around to her view, but not soon enough to prevent Mitterrand's reelection in 1988. Too many centrists had drifted toward the Left in the wake of Dreux and Robert Hersant.
After her reelection to the European Parliament in 1984, she was named deputy president. She also chaired (to 1989) the Parliament's Liberal, Democratic, and Reforming Group and traveled widely to recruit members, notably in Spain and Portugal after they joined the Common Market. In 1985 she retired as a magistrate. With parliamentary elections looming for 1986, Mitterrand anticipated that the UDF and RPR would win. Probably wanting to send a message to Giscard and Chirac, he made soundings about naming Veil premier, notwithstanding their mutual dislike. The situation resembled Giscard's whispering about her in 1978 as the next premier. It is hard to believe Mitterrand was serious, although Chirac took some precautions. In the end, the Right won its expected victory. The UDF supported Chirac, who became premier (1986–88). Some years later he said he regretted he had not included Veil in his cabinet as she "would have done some good."
All attention turned now to the presidential election of 1988. Mitterrand would oppose either Chirac or Barre. Veil supported Barre as more "tolerant" and less "monopolistic" in his attitude toward power. Chirac beat Barre, however, only to be roundly defeated by Mitterrand, who named a Socialist, Michel Rocard, as premier. At least twice Rocard invited Veil to join his government, offering the prestigious ministry of Justice. But the circumstances suggested that he and Mitterrand wanted her as a "hostage," profiting from her high poll standings while keeping her isolated from her centrist and rightist supporters. She would not bite. In order to counter the rising threat from the Le Pen side, she wanted proportional representation adopted and opposed new parliamentary elections. Rocard disagreed and withdrew the offers. Personally, she regretted that "the Opening," which sought to unite centrists enough to make the Left more receptive to the Right and vice versa, failed to materialize. Rocard, in fact, had shown interest in it and attended some meetings of the informal Club Vauban, at the Veils', which was promoting the idea.
Meanwhile, she continued to serve France and Europe, in 1987 being named president of the French Committee for the Year of Europe and the Environment and in 1988 president of the European Committee for the Year of Europe of Cinema and Television. On June 18, 1989, she was reelected to the European Parliament, heading a small centrist list which won a respectable 8.4% of the vote. The Assembly election of March 1993, however, suddenly opened a door to her when the UDF and RPR won a crushing victory.
Mitterrand named Édouard Balladur (RPR) premier. Even though she had been interviewed frequently on television as if it were certain she would return to office, she seemed surprised by Balladur's offer of Justice and the prestigious rank of minister of State. She hesitated because of her age (66) and the stress and fatigue involved. Yet Balladur had impressed her immensely by his discretion, frankness, honesty, and courtesy. At a journalists' luncheon she astonished them by flatly asserting that Balladur "is the only one who can rid us of the accursed pair Chirac-Giscard. To carry out this labor of public cleansing, the French are going to rally to him [plébisciter] and install him in the Élysée." After the usual parleys, she accepted the ministry of Health, Social Affairs, and Urban Affairs with minister of State rank. (In 1994 she added the department of Women's Affairs. She and Michèle Alliot-Marie at Youth and Sports were the only female ministers.) She had taken on a charge dealing with virtually every major problem except the economy and defense—a huge responsibility. She explained, "As for me, I want to undertake humanitarian action in France and concern myself with people's daily life."
To repeat in 1993 the overall success she had won in 1974–79 was probably impossible. Unemployment rose in 1993 to an appalling 12% by November. Homelessness and urban decay, especially in immigrant neighborhoods, ignited strikes and riots. The Budget, drained by unceasing social security outlays, ran rivers of red ink, while a spate of corruption scandals fed public cynicism. Balladur described the situation, somewhat grandly, as the "worst" in France since 1945.
It was obvious that the government, taking a hard line on immigration, hoped Veil's presence would reassure the country that it was committed to humane social programs in order to reduce tensions in the immigrant ghettos. When, for example, Minister of the Interior Charles Pasqua proposed an "ethnic profiling" scheme for police stops, she got it withdrawn by threatening to resign, sensitive as she was to anything smacking of racism. Her approach deemphasized repression. She believed mothers could lead the way to integration of immigrants, so she fostered State aid to non-religious associations offering them education and job training. In the main, she confirmed preexisting socialist innovations while pushing reforms which would reduce their cost.
Reflationary measures brought some recovery by mid-1994. But unemployment stayed unchanged, the stock market was feeble, investment low, and housing starts the lowest in 30 years. The only bright spot was inflation, which remained below 2%. Nothing promised resolution of the social problems Veil was trying to tame. How intractable the situation was is illustrated by what happened when the next ministry (Alain Juppé's) merely announced—not implemented—reform projects in social security and health, cuts in pensions for State employees, and austerity for the French National Railways. Strikes, beginning on the railways, all but paralyzed the country for over two weeks. As for the health front, finding matters no better financially than when she had left in 1979, she pressed for budget constraints. The most dramatic problem was the spread of AIDS, partly as a result of a scandalous contamination of the blood supply which had brought trials of officials, including a former premier. In 1994, she initiated a 42-nation summit meeting in Paris to mark World AIDS Day.
On the international scene, she aided Balladur's support of the European Community. A wave of xenophobia ("Euroscepticism") surged up in many countries, with protection for agriculture a particularly thorny issue. On a happier note, her reputed status as the No. 2 person in the cabinet was underscored when she stood beside Elizabeth II as France's representative at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of DDay (June 1994).
Despite all, Balladur, a cautious man, remained quite popular in the polls. Nor did Veil lose much ground. He had said when he became premier that he would not seek the presidency in 1995. After he reversed himself and declared his candidacy in January, he began losing ground to Chirac, who campaigned non-stop. Needless to say, Veil, as did most of the UDF, supported Balladur. On April 23, he ran third behind Socialist Lionel Jospin and Chirac. He withdrew and Chirac then defeated Jospin soundly in the May 7 runoff. Balladur resigned and Juppé replaced him. Veil was out.
It seemed all but certain that whatever chances she might have had to become a minister again, to say nothing of premier or (as some whisperings always went) president, were now dead. She did not leave political life altogether. In 1996, she strongly criticized Chirac for reneging on promises he made in 1995 about poverty and the homeless. She also lambasted Juppé for doing too little to boost women's presence in politics. She and nine other female ex-ministers signed the Manifesto of Ten (December 1996), which led to pressure resulting in an ongoing debate about proposed male-female quotas for elective office.
Throughout the '80s and '90s, Veil received a host of honors, including degrees, international prizes, and decorations from several countries, among them Germany, Brazil, Senegal, Greece, and Spain. France made her a chevalier in the Ordre National du Mérite. In September 1997, the British government at the insistence of the Foreign Office made her the first French woman to receive an honorary dameship in the Order of the British Empire, an extremely rare distinction for a foreign national. The British ambassador cited her as "one of the great figures of France and of Europe today." More or less topping off her career, in 1998 she was named to a blue-ribbon UN fact-finding committee sent to examine the civil war in Algeria. She also was appointed to a nine-year term on the Conseil Constitutionel, which serves as the watchdog over the French constitution.
Simone Veil's relations with Judaism and feminism deserve a word. Her Jewishness was neither religious—she was an agnostic, though in the 1970s she began visiting a synagogue on Yom Kippur—nor militant: "Jews should not let anything get by, but they shouldn't dramatize things either." On the other hand, she became discouraged with trying to make people understand the realities of the camps and the Holocaust's true nature. It was partly on this point that she took issue with the war-crimes trials in the '80s and '90s of Klaus Barbie, René Bousquet, and Paul Touvrier. These criminals should be denounced, she said, but that should be all. Any sentence they received would appear derisory beside the crimes they committed; such trials, too, encourage people to think that the Holocaust has been "dealt with." She did say once on television that she wouldn't have minded if someone had "bumped off" Barbie in Bolivia—a comment that raised some eyebrows.
She was prey to a lurking fear that anti-Semitism would swell and genocide return. She was quick to denounce it in words or acts, e.g., when she led a protest march in 1980 on the Champs-Élysées after the bombing of a synagogue on the rue Copernik in Paris. National unity, she believed, was the best defense against anti-Semitism. The Six-Day War (1967) shook her with fear of a return to extermination and then vast relief when Israel won. She regularly visited Israel from 1971 on, but her attachment was sentimental, not religious or political. While in office, she viewed Israel objectively and regarded a Palestinian state as a just solution.
As a woman who continually had to combat ingrained prejudices to succeed in the overwhelmingly male world of politics, Veil was a symbol of achievement to millions of women. She stood up for women's progress and issues yet did not let herself be "ghettoized" into dealing only with women's problems. At the same time, being a woman helped her when "they" were looking for one; the prospect of being the only woman on the scene did not stop her from accepting responsibilities. She used the rights women had gained—and criticized the mass of women for too often not doing likewise. She worried that young women seemed to think that all the battles had been won. On the other hand, she was uncomfortable with militant feminism. As in the abortion struggle, she approached women's issues in a pragmatic way. Feminist theory left her cold, and she thought feminist intellectuals often do not understand the real problems of most women.
She carried herself with pride, conscious of her worth. Yet she knew her limitations. Not conventionally ambitious, she was clear about what was possible and what she wanted whenever she was offered a position. She focused well on getting useful things done, not on basking in public acclaim. Her approach fitted her political stance, which was center-left, so to speak, "the politics of reason." She confessed to being at heart a "democratic socialist," but she rejected left-wing ideology and coolly considered the cost of programs. She remarked cogently that people want both security and less regulation, a contradiction which encourages politicians to resort to ambiguities and unfulfillable promises. In social philosophy, she was conservative. The role of the government "is not in my opinion to curtail or augment the chances of one or another, but to give maximum chances to all."
Simone Veil forged an extraordinary political career by being "an independent personality," as she put it. She participated to some degree in party affairs through the UDF but was never comfortable there. She won a unique place in French politics and public opinion as someone free of ordinary political ties. It was one of the ironies of the life of this complicated woman that with all her success she remained shy. Although she liked wielding power, she did not seek notoriety. As she told a Washington Post reporter in 1980, "I don't understand why I have this life. I didn't look for it…. Yes, perhaps I'm timid. It's terrible for me to be what we call ' vedette' in French—yes, that's it, 'star.' It's terrible being in the limelight. If I could I would go under that table." So spoke the president of the European Parliament.
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David S. Newhall , Pottinger Distinguished Professor of History Emeritus, Centre College, and author of Clemenceau: A Life at War (1991)