PARIS (Reuters) - French feminist Simone Veil, who survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and went on to become one of France’s most popular politicians, joined the elite Academie Francaise Thursday.
The Academie, a kind of linguistic supreme court that rules on issues such as finding French words for “computer” or “Internet,” has only admitted six women including Veil since it was founded by Cardinal Richelieu in 1635.
In a ceremony attended by President Nicolas Sarkozy, 82-year-old Veil, carrying a sword embellished with symbols of her life, spoke of her parents, both of whom died in concentration camps.
“I think of my mother every day, two-thirds of a century after she died in the hell of the Bergen-Belsen camp,” Veil said. “And it is also my father, who was deported and died in the Baltic countries, who is with me here.”
Nicknamed “the immortals” after the inscription on the seal of the Academie — “to immortality” — the 40 members range from writers and philosophers to doctors and military officials.
Veil’s sword, part of her Academie robes, had a grip sculpted of two hands locking in friendship. A female head marked her lifelong commitment to women’s rights. The sword’s hilt was engraved with “Birkenau” and a number tattooed on her arm in the camp.
Born Simone Jacob in Nice in 1927, she was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and deported. She survived and, after the war, studied political science in Paris. Later, she changed the lives of thousands of women by backing a law legalizing abortion as health minister for a center-right government in 1975.
Veil broadened her influence beyond national politics when she became president of the European parliament in 1979. Her election was also a sign of Franco-German reconciliation, given her experience of the Holocaust.
“Some were crushed by that immense catastrophe,” Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld wrote in Le Monde Magazine. “Others drew an incredible energy from it, as if having children or a profession was a kind of victory over the Nazis ... Simone Veil is without doubt one of them.”