Simone Veil elected to join France's "Immortals"

Thu Nov 20, 2008 12:32pm EST
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By James Mackenzie

PARIS (Reuters) - Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor, a feminist, and the minister in charge when France legalized abortion in 1975, was elected on Thursday to the prestigious body that acts as guardian of the French language.

Deported to the Nazi death camp as a teenager, Veil, 81, was the first female minister in France's Fifth Republic, serving five years under former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and overseeing the legalization of abortion as health minister.

The Academie francaise, one of the oldest institutions in France, was set up in 1635 during the reign of Louis XIII by Cardinal Richelieu to guard over the French language.

More recently, it has attracted controversy with defiant attacks on the excessive use of English words in modern French.

With her election, Veil becomes one of the 40 "Immortals" who make up the Academie francaise at any one time. They are elected for life and cannot resign.

Past members have included some of France's greatest writers and intellectuals, from the playwrights Racine and Corneille in the 17th century to Victor Hugo in the 19th century and Jean Cocteau in the 20th.

But they have also included politicians and administrators, many now entirely forgotten figures and some surprise choices such as the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau.

"They have been and are today, entitled to act as enlightened judges of the proper use of words and thus to define the notions and values carried by these words," the Academie francaise says on its website.   Continued...

<p>France's President Nicolas Sarkozy attends a ceremony during the Fall military ceremony on November 19, 2008 in Paris. REUTERS/Eric Feferberg/Pool</p>