Simone Veil, the Auschwitz survivor who became a towering figure in French politics after legalising abortion despite fierce opposition, was hailed as “the best of France” Friday following her death at 89.
Veil, a women’s rights icon who served as the first president of the European Parliament, died at her home, her son Jean Veil said.
Expressing his condolences, French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted: “May her example inspire our fellow citizens, as the best of what France can achieve.”
Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande said she “embodied dignity, courage and moral rectitude.”
“France has lost a figure the likes of which history produces few,” French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe tweeted.
Veil — a model of composure who always wore her hair in a sleek bun and dressed in Chanel suits — was seen as something of a secular saint for her unwavering stance on moral issues.
Her standout achievement as a politician was shepherding a 1974 abortion law through parliament after a 25-hour debate during which she endured a torrent of abuse, with some lawmakers likening terminations to the Holocaust.
“I never imagined the hatred that I would unleash,” the former health minister said later.
“There was such hypocrisy,” she said. “The assembly was mainly filled with men, some of whom were secretly looking for contacts to arrange an abortion for mistress or a member of their family.”
Born Simone Jacob in the Mediterranean city of Nice, Veil was sent to Auschwitz at the age of 17 with her entire family.
Her father, mother and brother died in the Nazi death camps. She and her two sisters, one of whom later died in a car crash, survived.
After the war she studied law and married Antoine Veil, who died in April 2013. The couple had three sons.
As a young judge she lobbied for improved conditions in French prisons before later throwing herself into the battle to end backstreet abortions.
A staunch believer in European integration, she became the first president of the European Parliament in 1979, a post she held for three years.
She also frequently took part in World War II commemorations and spoke about against the far-right National Front.
Polls consistently showed her to be one of France’s most popular and trusted figures.