Marking the Passing of an Age in France
Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP
Marking the Passing of an Age in France
Ludovic Marin/Pool Photo via AP
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On July 1, 2018, 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 France’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 in France’s modern history. 

Her casket, along with that of her husband of 66 years, Antoine, was placed in the sixth vault of the Pantheon, joining those of Jean Moulin, Andre Malraux, Jean Monnet and Rene Cassin. 

As a professor and writer who has followed and, in a way, shared France’s evolution since the late 1960s, it seemed exactly right—a just national honoring of a noble life. At the same time, those familiar with France since the 1960s must 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, was like a bell tolling the passing of an era. There are not so many left 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 eventually, in 1958, founding president of the Fifth Republic.

Others one might cite were 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 achieved world renown as a novelist. Another was 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, who held office from 1981 to 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 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 then, at first 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. No one could question the gravity of her convictions. 

In 2008, she joined the very few politicians to be elected to the 40-member Academie Francaise -- Veil was the sixth woman elected. In his dean’s welcoming speech, the novelist 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 speech, Macron said “[h]er whole life was an illustration of an invincible hope…that, in the end, humanity will triumph over barbarism.”

Veil entered the national Pantheon only a year after her death, Macron said, “so that the causes for which she fought, her dignity and hope will be a compass to guide us in these troubled times.” The young French president is an avatar of this historic generation, a guardian of its memory and its history. Born in 1977, eight years after de Gaulle’s death, Macron is one of the few contemporary French leaders 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 from 1914 to 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 show that France is the guardian of Europe’s historical memory amid peoples for whom the 20thCentury is now of little significance.