On July 1 the mortal remains of French politician and historical figure Simone Veil were transferred from Paris’s famous Montparnasse Cemetery to be reinterred in the Pantheon, the national mausoleum where lie many of the country’s most outstanding personalities.
During a solemn ceremony on the steps of the Pantheon, near the venerable Sorbonne on the Left Bank, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a moving national homage to a Frenchwoman who was representative of the best of modern France’s history.
As a professor and writer who has followed, and in a way shared, France’s evolution since the late 1960s, this internment of Veil seemed exactly right to me — a just national honoring of a noble life. At the same time, those familiar with France since the 1960s cannot but feel a great melancholy. Veil’s passing — born in 1927, she died on June 30, 2017 at the age of 89 — and Macron’s deeply felt evocation of her importance in French national life resounded like a bell tolling the passing of an era. Not many remain of France’s historic generation that came of age in the 1930s.
The most eminent of them all was of course Charles de Gaulle, France’s great World War II Resistance leader and later, in 1958, the founding president of the Fifth Republic.
Others one might cite include Andre Malraux, who died in 1976. Malraux was de Gaulle’s ally for 25 years, a Resistance leader who had been a hero in the Spanish Civil war, and a world-renowned novelist. Another is the steadfast Cold War liberal thinker Raymond Aron, who died in 1983, and with whom I studied for two memorable years. Jean-Paul Sartre, the writer and philosopher, passed away in 1980. Sartre’s longtime companion, the writer Simone de Beauvoir, whose book, The Second Sex (1949), announced modern feminist thinking, passed away in 1986. Controversial President Francois Mitterrand, in office from 1981 until 1995, passed away in 1996, just months after leaving office. I wrote a book on Mitterrand and knew him up close. Like Aron, Sartre and so many others, Mitterrand came of age in the 1930s and his controversial career mirrored his country’s self-contradictions.
Simone Veil was a generation younger, but her adult life began in World War II. As a teenager she was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, a hellish existence that she survived. She wore her camp inmate’s tattoo number all her life as a badge of honor. Yet she didn’t speak publicly of her deportation until the age of 50 — and even that first time, during an interview, she spoke of it only in passing. After that, she became a moral influence in French society.
Veil was Minister of Health Affairs in President Giscard d’Estaing’s government in the 1970s. She authored the momentous November 1974 legislation legalizing abortion, defending it as a matter of a woman’s right to control her own life in situations that were always tragic. As a survivor of the Holocaust, her defense of abortion was agonizing. But no one could question the gravity of her convictions.
In 2008, she became one of only a few politicians, and the sixth woman, to be elected to the 40-member Academie Francaise. In his welcoming speech, the novelist and Dean of the Academie Jean d’Ormesson (who himself passed away last December) emphasized that Veil would take the seat originally occupied by the 17th Century dramatist Jean Racine.
In the Pantheon, she joins Voltaire, Rousseau, Jean Monnet, Marie and Pierre Currie, Zola, and Victor Hugo, among many others that have marked French history.
In his own speech on the occasion President Macron said “[h]er whole life was an illustration of an invincible hope…that, in the end, humanity will triumph over barbarism.”
She entered the national Pantheon only a year after her death so that, as Macron said, “the causes for which she fought, her dignity and hope will be a compass to guide us in these troubled times.” The French president is himself an avatar of this historic generation, a guardian of its memory as well as its history. Born in 1977, eight years after de Gaulle’s death, Macron is one of the few contemporary French leaders – there may in fact be no others – who is a convincing narrator of the country’s past.
In this sense, Simone Veil’s transfer to the Pantheon is the adieu of three French generations whose pedigree dates to World War II, the Resistance against Nazi barbarism, and France’s rebirth. She was there and now she’s gone. They all were and are. In human terms, Europe’s suicidal catastrophe, 1914-1945, is “history.”
In no other European country but France is this sort of event still credible, legitimate. Queen Elizabeth’s passing will be marked by supreme pomp and circumstance, but the life of Simone Veil and Macron’s homage demonstrate that France is the guardian of Europe’s historical memory amidst peoples for whom the 20th Century is now of little significance.
Ronald Tiersky is the Joseph B. Eastman Emeritus Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts. His books include François Mitterrand: A Very French President (2003),Euro-Scepticism (2001), France in the New Europe (1994), Ordinary Stalinism (1985), and French Communism 1920-1972 (1974). This piece first appeared on RealClearWorld.