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Obituary

Simone Veil, 'the best of France,' dies

Auschwitz survivor and champion of abortion rights Simone Veil has died at age 89. Tributes to the French politician praised her "legendary" fight for the rights of the downtrodden.

Holocaust survivor and the first president of the European Parliament, Simone Veil, died at her home at the age of 89. Her son made the announcement on Friday, prompting tributes from around the world.

"Simone Veil was a symbol, legend and proof that nothing can beat the human spirit," wrote EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic on Twitter.

"May her example inspire our fellow citizens, as the best of what France can achieve," French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter.

The presidential Elysee Palace said a funeral ceremony with military honors would be held on Wednesday at Les Invalides in Paris. On the day, French flags on public buildings will be dressed in black ribbons in her memory, while European flags will fly at half-mast. 

Dignity and courage

Macron's predecessor, Francios Hollande, said Veil "embodied dignity, courage and moral rectitude."

"France has lost a figure the likes of which history produces few," French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe added in a tweet.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed Veil, saying she had been "committed for several decades and with great energy to the process of European unification."

"We will also remember her tireless ... commitment to the survivors of the Holocaust, whose fate she shared," Merkel wrote in a message to Veil's son.

Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, under whom Veil served as health minister in the 1970s, described her as "an exceptional woman who experienced life's greatest joys and its greatest sadnesses."

 

Simone Veil (picture-alliance/dpa)

April 2, 1993: Health Minister Simone Veil flanked by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe (left) and President Francois Mitterand during the first cabinet meeting of the new French government

Holocaust survivor

Born Simone Jacob in Nice in 1927, Veil was 17 years old when she was sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. Her father, mother and brother perished in the Nazi death camps, but Veil survived along with two sisters.

"I found myself thrown into a universe of death, humiliation and barbarism," Veil wrote in the preface to a 2005 book on the Holocaust. "I am still haunted by the images, the odors, the screams, the humiliation, the blows and the sky, ashen with the smoke from the crematoriums."

She met Antoine Veil while studying law at Paris' prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques. The couple married in 1946 and had three sons.

Fierce crusader

Veil quickly rose to prominence both as a judge who fought for improved prison conditions in France, and for her crusade against back-alley abortions. Indeed her campaign to legalize abortion in France is one of her most famous accomplishments as a lawmaker.

A stalwart centrist, Veil was almost universally respected by her fellow politicians despite fierce opposition to her positions, including on abortion.

"I never imagined the hatred that I would unleash," the former health minister said later of the gruelling debate that eventually led to the 1974 abortion bill passing in parliament.

Simone Veil and Jacques Chirac

January 17, 2007: French President Jacques Chirac kissed the hand of Simone Veil at Le Pantheon in Paris

Veil was also an ardent supporter of European integration, becoming head of the European Parliament in 1979, serving a three-year term.

Domestically, she spoke openly against the far-right National Front (FN), and about her pacifism and experiences during World War II.

"The idea of war was for me something terrible," the French Academy member told the Associated Press in 2007. "The only possible option was to make peace."

es/msh (AP, AFP)

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