Auschwitz survivor a national treasure - Stateswoman becomes sixth female in 375 years to join 'immortals'
Wearing a green uniform designed by Karl Lagerfeld, of Chanel, and a sword engraved with her Auschwitz tattoo number, Simone Veil, 82, was enthroned as one of the French immortals yesterday in the Academie Francaise.
A survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, mother of three children, former health minister, abortion pioneer, first president of the directly elected European Parliament and much-loved French elder stateswoman became the sixth woman in 375 years to join the ranks of the exalted.
Three French presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing were present for her induction ceremony in the gold-domed building beside the Seine where the academy defends the French language and compiles (very slowly) the definitive French dictionary. The 20th-century edition, the ninth, has been under discussion for an hour or so each Thursday since 1935. The academy has reached the letter "P".
Ms Veil was 16 when – as Simone Jacob – she was arrested by French police on a Nice street in March 1944 for having false papers and sent to Auschwitz. She, unlike her father, brother and mother, survived the war, and became a judge, prison reformer and, from 1974, the health minister who legalised abortion in France.
From 1979 to 1981, she was the president of the first directly elected European parliament.
In her inaugural speech, Ms Veil said: "Since you invited me to join you, the memory of my mother has not left me ... two thirds of a century after her death in the hell of Bergen-Belsen a few days before the liberation of the camp."
Ms Veil's autobiography, A Life. A Memoir, spent many weeks at the top of the French bestsellers' list in 2007. She wrote, amongst other things, of the "Kafkaesque incoherence" of Auschwitz: the obsessive neatness of the Germans amidst mass slaughter; the occasional, unexplained kindness of some Nazis.
Although most members of the Académie Française are literary figures, there has always been a sprinkling of political, religious and military members. The 40 academy seats are numbered, like the shirts of a football team squad. Ms Veil was elected last year to seat No 13, which was previously occupied by the former centre-right prime minister, Pierre Messmer, who died in 2007. Previous occupants of the seat have included the 17th-century playwright, Jean Racine.
By tradition, all academicians wear a green, braided uniform and cocked hat and carry a ceremonial sword. Ms Veil's uniform was designed for her by Karl Lagerfeld of Chanel. Her sword was, at her insistence, engraved with the Auschwitz camp number, 78651, which is still tattooed on her wrist.
President Sarkozy was reported at first to have decided to boycott the ceremony. Ms Veil – one of his political allies – had criticised his decision to appoint a man, rather than another woman, to replace her on France's constitutional watchdog, the Conseil Constitutionnel. The Elysée Palace announced yesterday that he would attend after all.
Of course, being France there was a protest. At the building entrance on the Seine, a small group of anti-abortionists protested in an orderly fashion. And the police in equally orderly fashion kept them behind a cordon and away from the new immortal.