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France’s Simone Veil Will Become the Fifth Woman Buried in the Panthéon

It is an exceptional honor reserved for esteemed French citizens

(Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Simone Veil, the French Holocaust survivor and pioneering political activist, died last week at the age of 89. As the Agence France Presse reports, French President Emmanuel Macron has announced that Veil will be buried in the historic Panthéon mausoleum in Paris—a rare honor reserved for the country’s most esteemed figures.

Veil will become the fifth woman laid to rest in the Panthéon. She joins scientist Marie Curie, French Resistance fighters Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, and Sophie Berthelot, who was buried alongside her husband, the chemist Pierre-Eugène-Marcellin Berthelot. According to the BBC, 76 men have been buried in the Panthéon, among them Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The body of Veil’s husband, the politician Antoine Veil, will be moved to the mausoleum so the couple can be interred together.

Built in the 18th century, the Panthéon originally functioned as a church dedicated to St. Geneviève, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The building was secularized during the French Revolution and designated as a burial space for exceptional French citizens.

Speaking at Veil’s funeral on Wednesday, Macron said that the activist is receiving the honor of a Panthéon burial to show “the immense gratitude of the French people to one of its most loved children.”

Born in Nice in 1927, Veil was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944, according to Sewell Chan of the New York Times. She was deported to Auschwitz, and later to Bergen-Belsen. Veil survived the Holocaust, but her mother, father and brother did not.

After the war, Veil studied law and political science in Paris. In 1954, she passed the national examination to become a magistrate and began working in the Justice Ministry, where she worked to improve the living conditions of female prisoners.

When Veil was appointed health minister in 1974, she became a tireless advocate for the legalization of abortion, which had been criminalized in France since the Napoleonic era. The abortion legislation was debated for three days in the National Assembly, with some politicians equating pregnancy terminations to Nazi genocide—a comparison that Veil summarily rejected.

“I will share a conviction of women, and I apologize for doing it in front of this assembly comprised almost exclusively of men: No woman resorts to abortion lightheartedly,” she said during the debate, according to Chan.

In 1975, a new abortion law, which legalized the procedure during the first ten weeks of pregnancy, went into effect. It is still referred to as Loi Veil, or Veil Law.

At age 52, Veil became the first elected president of the European Parliament, the legislative body of the European Economic Community, which was folded into the newly established European Union in 1993. She was also the president of the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, an organization devoted to Holocaust remembrance and research.

According to the AFP, Veil was consistently voted one of the most trusted political figures in France. Writing on Twitter shortly after her death, Macron said that Veil symbolized “the best of what France can achieve.”

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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