French rights icon Simone Veil secures coveted place in Pantheon

by Clare BYRNE

Paris (AFP) - French Holocaust survivor and rights icon Simone Veil, who died last week aged 89, will receive the rare honour of being inducted into the Pantheon, President Emmanuel Macron announced at her funeral Wednesday.

Veil will become only the fifth woman to be laid to rest in the Paris monument, which houses the remains of great national figures, and only the fourth to be allocated a spot on her own merits.

She will join Polish-born French scientist Marie Curie; two French Resistance members who were deported to Germany, Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion; and Sophie Berthelot, who was buried alongside her chemist husband Marcellin Berthelot.

Among the other luminaries buried in the secular mausoleum are writers Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Emile Zola.

Veil was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 while still a teenager.

She survived the concentration camps that claimed the lives of her mother, father and brother, and went on to become an indefatigable crusader for women's rights and European reconciliation.

Her biggest political achievement was pushing through a law to legalise abortion in France in 1974 in the face of fierce opposition.

Several hundred dignitaries, relatives and friends attended her funeral Wednesday at the Invalides military hospital and museum in Paris.

Draped in the French tricolour, her coffin was borne into the museum's courtyard by members of the Republican Guard and set down on the cobbles on a wooden bier.

Macron told the mourners he would bestow the Pantheon honour on her and her husband Antoine, who died in 2013, to show "the immense gratitude of the French people to one of its most loved children."

"You brought into our lives that light that burned within you and which nobody could ever take away," he said.

Born Simone Jacob in the Mediterranean city of Nice on July 13, 1927, Veil was arrested by the Gestapo in March 1944 and deported to Auschwitz with one of her sisters and her mother Yvonne.

The two girls, who were put to work in a concentration camp, survived -- as did another sister who was deported for her part in the French Resistance.

Her mother succumbed to typhoid in Belsen just before that camp was liberated in 1945, and her father and brother were last seen on a train of deportees bound for Lithuania.

"Sixty years later I am still haunted by the images, the odours, the cries, the humiliation, the blows and the sky filled with the smoke of the crematoriums," she said in a TV interview broadcast in 2005.

Reflecting on her famously resolute character in a eulogy Wednesday, her son Jean Veil said: "That determination was the backbone the armour that helped you survive hell."

- Landmark abortion law -

After the war Veil studied law and met her husband Antoine Veil, with whom she had three children.

A member of the centre-right Union for French Democracy, she was named health minister in 1974 and led a battle that marked her generation: the legalisation of abortion.

Veil led the charge in the National Assembly, where she braved a volley of insults, some of them likening pregnancy terminations to the Nazis' treatment of Jews.

The legislation, named the "Loi Veil" (Veil Law), is today considered a cornerstone of women's rights and secularism in France.

In 1979, she become the first elected president of the European Parliament.

Instantly recognisable by her hair, which she always wore in a sleek bun, and her Chanel suits, she was consistently voted one of France's most trusted public figures.

In later life, she headed up the French Foundation for preserving the memory of the Shoah, or Holocaust.