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French Holocaust survivor and pro-abortion campaigner Simone Veil dies at 89

PARIS (Reuters) - French politician Simone Veil, who survived the Holocaust and led campaigns for the legalization of abortion in France in the 1970s, died at her home in Paris on Friday, her family said. She was 89 years old.

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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 quit 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.

Tributes honoring her courage and determination to advance women’s rights were paid from within France and beyond.

“May her example inspire our fellow countrymen, who will find in her the best of France,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a message to the family.

Veil’s concentration camp experience turned her into a passionate advocate of European unification but she was best known in France for legalizing abortion when she was health minister in 1974 under then President Valery Giscard d’Estaing.

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.

“Great debates that have for a time divided the French people appear with the passing of time as a necessary step to forming a new social consensus that is part of the tradition of tolerance in our country,” Veil said in a speech defending the abortion law in 1974.

Veil was born Simone Jacob in Nice, on the French Riviera, on July 13, 1927, and from a young age experienced the spread of anti-Semitism in Europe.

“Your mother is a Jew, you will burn in hell,” a classmate once told her.

In spring 1944, aged 16 and living under a false identity, she was arrested together with her family by the Germans. Her father, mother and brother died in concentration camps, though a sister who was active in the French Resistance survived imprisonment in the Ravensbruck camp.

After the war, she studied law at Sciences Po in Paris and became a magistrate, winning honorary degrees from the U.S. Princeton university and Israel’s Weizman Institute.

She was married to Antoine Veil, a prominent businessman who led several leading companies and died in 2013. They had three sons.

“She embodied for an entire generation the struggle of women for the freedom to decide on motherhood,” said Jean Louis Debre, former president of the Constitutional Court.

“More profoundly, she represented for men and women seeking a new future a European desire for peace and prosperity.”

Reporting by Paul Taylor and Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Lough and Richard Balmforth