PARIS (Reuters) - France paid homage on Sunday to Simone Veil, a Holocaust survivor best known for legalizing abortion in the 1970s as she joined the country’s great citizens interred in the Pantheon in Paris.
Veil, who died aged 89 on June 30 a year ago, was laid to rest with her husband in the crypt of the Pantheon mausoleum alongside other national icons including authors Emile Zola and Victor Hugo and the philosopher Voltaire.
Hundreds of people lined sun-drenched streets in central Paris to watch the cortege carrying the caskets of Simone and her husband Antoine pass by. Among them were her two sons, both prominent criminal affairs lawyers.
“France loves Simone Veil and loves her for her struggles,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a speech at the Pantheon.
“We wanted Simone Veil to enter the Pantheon without waiting for generations to pass so that her battles, her dignity and her hope remain a compass in these troubled times.”
A Jewish survivor of the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen with the prisoner number 78651 tattooed on her arm, she was a fervent European and fighter for civil liberties, becoming the first elected president of the European Parliament in 1979.
Although out of the national limelight since 2007 when she left her seat at France’s top constitutional court, she commanded wide respect across the political spectrum and remained among the most popular politicians in opinion polls.
Her concentration camp experience had made her a passionate advocate of European union but she was best known in France for legalizing abortion when she was health minister in 1974.
Virtually unknown when she joined the cabinet, she fought doggedly against a hostile parliament and divided public opinion to push through a bill that became known as “the Veil Law”, making France the first mainly Roman Catholic country to legalize abortion.
After her death her body was interred at Montparnasse Cemetery, and exhumed for re-burial at the Pantheon.
(The story was corrected to replace Ravensbruck with Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen in paragraph 6)
Reporting by John Irish, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky