In the last month, two leading figures who helped build Europe as we know it today passed away. On 1st July, the day representatives in Brussels were paying tribute to the former pro-European Chancellor of Germany, Helmut Kohl, Simone Veil died aged 89. Through her social and political engagements she left behind a rich heritage that is today more than ever relevant for the future of Europe.
Born into a Jewish family in Nice, Simone Veil was profoundly affected by her deportation to Auschwitz with her family in 1944, after which only her sister and her survived. Years later she described her incomprehension as a little girl witnessing the ravages and injustices of the war, which largely contributed to her determination to enshrine peace in Europe.
After the war, Simone Veil came to have a distinguished career as a magistrate, advising several ministers for justice and became the first female secretary general of the council of the legislature. That was only the beginning in the long career of the woman with many firsts.
In 1974, Valérie Giscard D’Estaing, then French President, approached Antoine Veil, Simone’s husband, to offer him a position in the government. Instead, it was Simone who joined the Ministry for Health, where she would irrevocably leave her mark.
Her battle to legalise abortion, fighting off opposition and insults, still resonates in the French National Assembly. She resolutely attempted to change mentalities and prejudices against women’s right to control their body and eventually, after 3 days of intense debating, successfully passed the law. That day, she started her speech with a sentence that would convince generations of men and women after her : “First, I would like to share a woman’s conviction, I apologise for it in front of an assembly made almost exclusively of men: no woman ever resorts to abortion with pleasure, you just have to hear the women, it is always a tragedy, it will always be a tragedy”.
She went on to tackle the issue of social security, pushing for an expansion of social security benefits (thanks to her, even abortion would be reimbursed) and a more human treatment in hospitals.
Through her legacy as Health Minister, and more globally as the first elected President of the European Parliament, she continues to inspire every woman through her ability to speak freely in front of male-dominated assemblies. She asserted proudly her difference as a woman and categorically refused “to adapt to the masculine model”.
It cannot be denied that her strength and determination were key in the development of the European Parliament. Again, in 1979 she campaigned fiercely without giving in to the verbal attacks directed at her, especially from the representatives of the Front National led by Jean Marie Le Pen, who she provocatively called an “SS with little feet”.
She played a key role in helping the young Parliament become a stable institution.
Her pragmatic perspective on the difficulties that could thwart a European political and economic rapprochement dampened the idealistic enthusiasm that prevailed at the time. In her inaugural speech, she did not hesitate to state the numerous difficulties that European institutions still had to face to successfully pursue the integration. More importantly, she never missed a chance to remind Europeans and their representatives that Europe’s history was paved with bloody and destructive wars. Only the European Union could warrant peace on the continent.
We should draw numerous lessons from Simone Veil’s engagement.
First, that the progress she embodies and the battles she carried are far from being achieved. In the last few years, women’s rights advancement has met many challenges. The rise of traditionalist parties jeopardises women equal status, and perceptions of women in leadership position still have a long way to go for improvement. While she’s an inspiration to a lot of women, many barriers have yet to be overcome until new Simone Veils of their generation, leading their own battles, can seek leadership roles and make long-lasting contributions to their country and the world. Simply said, since Simone Veils’ mandate, only one woman, but fourteen me, were elected as President of the EU Parliament.
There is a feeling, in all the tributes paid to the French politician in the past few days, that her death should be a reminder of a progress dangerously put at risk in today’s Europe. People tend to forget that the European community has been created for one crucial reason: preserve peace and solidarity in continental Europe. For Simone, the purpose of living of the European Union was to deal with three great challenges: “the challenge of peace, the challenge of freedom and the challenge of prosperity”. The loss of such an emblematic figure of the European construction, who had lived through the Second World War, genuinely risks further distancing the central peacekeeping role of the EU.
So, even though very few women would deny that Simone alone embodies the struggles of Europe in the twentieth century, her example has yet to be followed.
Photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen (wikimedia commons)