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.
In a brief statement, the Academie said Veil had been elected by 22 of the 29 members who cast a valid vote to replace Pierre Messmer, a wartime Resistance hero who later became a senior administrator and politician.
At the time of the parliamentary debate on legalizing abortion, Veil faced vitriolic opposition from some legislators who screamed “Aborter!” at her in the chamber, in scenes that made a mark on the French collective memory.
Recent opinion polls show she is very widely respected.
A former judge who also served in the European parliament, Veil has been one of France’s most prominent feminists and has frequently spoken out on issues relating to the Nazi Holocaust.
In a statement, President Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to Veil’s “constant courage in the struggle for the liberty of women, for Europe and for the memory of the Shoah.”
A few dozen members of the anti-abortion group “Let Them Live” protested outside the seat of the Academie francaise on the Quai Conti in Paris.
Editing by Richard Balmforth