You won’t have heard about it if your source of news is the British press and media, BBC included, because, frankly, they’re crap. But the veteran French politician Simone Veil has just been inducted into the Académie Française — only the sixth female member since it was founded in 1635 — making her, in the language of the Académie, “an immortal”.
A survivor, certainly. At the age of seventeen, she was deported with her family to Auschwitz. All but Simone and one of her sisters died. In later life, she entered politics and served as French Health Minister, where she overcame conservative resistance to reform laws on contraception and abortion. From 1979 to 1982, she was President of the European Parliament, and served another term in the French government as Minister of State between 1993 and 1995.
Although generally centrist or centre-left in politics, she supported nasty Nick Sarkozy in his Presedential campaign of 2007. Unfortunately, he was elected.
The latter lapse apart, Simone Veil has had a remarkable political career, particularly supporting women’s rights; and recognition in France is well-deserved. But there are a couple of reasons why I feel a bond with her. The first is that the day I graduated at the McEwan Hall in Edinburgh (Victorian Gothic — it looks like a bit of Hogwarts) Simone Veil was there to receive an honorary doctrate from the University. Second, when the Reverend Ian Paisley tried to obstruct the European Parliament on his first day as an MEP in 1979, attempting to shout down the President of the European Council, it was Simone Veil as chairperson and President of the Parliament, who told him in no uncertain terms to sit down and shut up.
(Not to be confused with Simone Weil, who began life as a Marxist and social activist and ended it as a mystical-minded nutjob.)