Veil might be rolling in her now-illustrious grave. She was 16 when she was rounded up on the streets of Nice. She and her family, who were then living under false papers, were deported. Her father and brother were never heard from again. One sister joined the resistance and died in France. Simone, her mother, and another sister were sent through Drancy, a deportation area north of Paris, then on to Poland, to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in cattle cars. There, Veil was branded number 78651 by the Nazis. For reasons that remain unclear, her hair was never shaved, just cut short, something she later said helped preserve her dignity.
Veil and her mother were sent to a work camp near Auschwitz building airplane parts for Siemens, the German industrial conglomerate, and were eventually shipped to Bergen-Belsen, where her mother died of typhoid at 44. Her last words were said to be, “Don’t ever wish others ill; we know too well what it is.” As soon as the war was over, Veil studied law in Paris, where she met and married Antoine, a fellow student, had three sons, and began pushing for European—that is, Franco-German—reconciliation. While serving as health minister, she helped bring awareness of the Holocaust, and the Vichy regime’s complicity in it, to the French popular imagination in decades when denial was the status quo.
In a 2010 speech inducting Veil into the Académie Française, one of the highest honors of the French state, reserved for cultural figures and intellectuals, the writer Jean d’Ormesson called her “at once tradition and modernity incarnate.” “I see you, madam, and I think of those great women of other times whose dignity and allure commanded respect. And then I consider your path and I regard you as a figure on the prow of a ship, moving history ever forward.”
In France she has been hailed for a certain kind of feminism—one that got concrete results, like legalizing abortion, after she pushed against Catholic traditionalists as health minister in a center-right government of Jacques Chirac. In a famous 1974 speech before France’s National Assembly, Veil said, “I want to share my conviction as a woman. I apologize for doing it before an Assembly that almost exclusively consists of men,” before delivering strong words that ultimately won the vote. But she also embodies a certain kind of traditionalism. In his 2010 speech, D’Ormesson placed Veil in contrast to Simone de Beauvoir and her adherents who, he said, “deny the difference between the sexes.” “You are on the side of the weak, but you deny all victimization,” he said.
In the many tributes to her in the French press since her death, Veil is often depicted not only as a fighter for European and women’s rights but also as a devoted wife to Antoine, a mother, a grandmother, a woman who exuded moral authority and convinced men in power to modernize France without upending the country’s traditional notion of the family or the state. Before the ceremony on Sunday, former president Nicolas Sarkozy told a television reporter that what he liked most about Veil’s entering the Panthéon was that her husband was there, too. “I don’t think either of them would have wanted to be separated,” Sarkozy said, adding how nice it must be “for a man to find his wife in the Panthéon.” Sarkozy’s Socialist successor as president, François Hollande, said, “She’s a woman in which many women recognize themselves, but also many men.”