‘Merci Madame’: Simone Veil Is Honored With Panthéon Burial

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PARIS — Some fainted in the scorching July heat on Sunday, and many more wept as Simone Veil’s coffin was carried up to the Panthéon, France’s burial place for some of its most illustrious citizens.

But for the thousands who gathered on the heights of the city’s left bank, there was pride, gratitude and a word on all their lips: ‘‘Merci.’’ They wanted to thank Ms. Veil, the Holocaust survivor and women’s rights champion who became the fifth woman to be interred among the country’s greats, one year after her death at 89.

“France loves Simone Veil,” President Emmanuel Macron said on the steps of the Panthéon, as he faced the coffins of Ms. Veil and her husband, Antoine, a former civil servant who died in 2013 and who will rest alongside her. “It loves her in her fights, always fair, always necessary, always animated by the will for the most fragile.”

For all those who came to pay tribute, the honor felt well deserved. Ms. Veil embodied some of France’s most famous campaigns of the second half of the 20th century: its national reconciliation efforts after World War II, women’s rights, European integration and many others.

For the children who came with their classmates or their parents, she was first and foremost a Holocaust survivor, the woman they learned of in their elementary or middle-school history classes, one who helped to rebuild France after World War II.

Simone Jacob was 16 when she was sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp with her mother and a sister in March 1944. They were later transferred to Bergen-Belsen. She lost her parents and her brother in the Nazi camps, and forever bore the mark of deportation, her camp number tattooed on her left arm.

On Sunday, that number — 78651 — was displayed on giant screens next to the street along which Ms. Veil’s funeral procession ran. Children asked what it meant; Mr. Macron called it a symbol of Ms. Veil’s “untouchable dignity.”

Many of those children were dressed in shirts and suits to honor her, and if they were not filming or clapping, they were posing for photographs with signs that read “Merci, Madame,” or “Today I can’t, I have to go to the Panthéon.”

“Simone’s Veil story is history with a capital ‘H,’ and it’s also the history of our country,” said Sophie Jusseau. The Parisian, 45, brought her 12-year-old daughter, Margaux, and Margaux’s friends to the ceremony. “They’ve studied the Holocaust in class,” Ms. Jusseau said. “They know Ms. Veil because of what she went through, and how she then fought for national reconciliation.”

After she and her sister were liberated from Bergen-Belsen, Ms. Veil studied at the elite school Sciences Po, where she met her future husband, Antoine.

Ms. Veil first qualified as a judge and later became a trailblazing politician, famous for championing a law that legalized abortion in 1975, when she was health minister. The law is still widely referred to as the “Veil law.”

“If we are more emancipated today, we owe it to her,” said Christine Delmas, 55, who had come from Lyon to pay tribute. “She gave us rights that look normal for younger generations today, but which are so essential that we must protect them.”

Standing next to her, Anne Burthod, 61, said, “She was a first in so many things: the first to legalize abortion, the first woman to become president of the European Parliament.”

“What a model for us all,” she added.

Many praised Ms. Veil’s iron will and her courage, recalling that when she defended the abortion law in front of Parliament, 98 percent of the legislature’s members were men.

“Ms. Veil built herself a political career in a country that expected women to stay at home and have children so that France could rebuild itself after World War II,” Françoise Thébaud, a historian who specializes in gender and women’s right at the University of Avignon, said in an interview.

In 1974, Ms. Veil also helped pass a law that legalized reimbursement for the cost of birth control pills by France’s public health care system. During her second term as France’s health minister, from 1993 to 1995, she introduced measures to help those with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.

Following Ms. Veil’s death on June 30, 2017, thousands of French citizens signed petitions asking Mr. Macron to have her remains placed in the Panthéon, where 72 men — including the writer Victor Hugo and the philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau — but only four women were interred.

The first, Sophie Berthelot, was included in 1907 after her husband, the chemist and scholar, Marcellin Berthelot, had been selected, and the family insisted that the two, who died suddenly only hours apart, not be separated. Finally in 1995, the scientist Marie Curie became the first woman to be honored with a Panthéon burial on her own merits, 34 years after her death. The Resistance members Germaine Tillion and Geneviève De Gaulle-Anthonioz were honored in 2015 by Mr. Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande.

But none were as popular as Ms. Veil, who polls routinely showed was among the most admired figures in France.

A subway station and a plaza in Paris were renamed after her in May. A group of street artists called “Merci Simone” have sold thousands of colorful portraits of Ms. Veil, and stuck up hundreds of others in the streets of Paris since her death, reinforcing the idea that she has become a popular figure across several generations.

Sensing the consensus, Mr. Macron announced less than a week after her death that she would be laid to rest in the Panthéon. “May your fights keep running in our veins, inspire our youth and unite the French people,” he said on Sunday.

It was also a reminder to future leaders that there was room in the Panthéon for more illustrious women — something Ms. Veil had once called for, saying in 1992 that the lack of women there amounted “to a denial of what women have brought to France in the past.”

More than a quarter-century later, Mr. Macron agreed.

“With Simone Veil, those generations of women who have made France, without receiving due recognition or freedom from the nation, are now entering here,” he said. “Today, with her, may justice be rendered to all of them.”

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