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France’s real first lady

A Life
Simone Veil
Haus Publishing, 352pp, £16.99

This autobiography by one of France’s most popular and charismatic politicians should have been a page-turner. Simone Veil’s life – from her birth in 1927 into a modest and intellectual Jewish family in Nice, to her election last year to the Académie Française – has been a fascinating one. This woman, who survived Auschwitz but lost most of her family to the Holocaust, has become a symbol in France of strength and compassion. Responsible for the passing of the Veil law of 1975 that legalised abortion at a time when the French public, had it been asked, would probably have voted against it, she is undoubtedly the figure who has, by dint of the sheer prestige and dignity of her person, done the most to further the cause of women’s rights in France.

The great causes she has espoused and her unprejudiced heart – reflected by her key role in the campaign to compensate French victims of the Shoah, combined with her support for the recognition of France’s “righteous” and their role in saving 75 per cent of France’s Jews – make a discussion of her prose faintly improper. Yet neither admiration for Veil the woman nor her recent apotheosis by the Académie can disguise a simple fact: her story should have been written by somebody else. For the sad truth is that, in her own hands, the narrative of her exemplary life takes on a disquieting superficiality.

“The photos of my childhood prove it,” begins the memoir in the flat tone that will dominate throughout. “We were a happy family.” Later, she acknowledges her difficulties in describing this childhood idyll: “It was a happiness not easily conveyed in words, because it consisted of calm surroundings and little nothings . . .” Indeed, Veil often refers us to more accomplished writers for a better sense of what she is grasping at. In June 1940, “The atmosphere in France was exactly that described by Irène Némirovsky, in Suite Française.” And we can only guess at the experience of wartime captivity, for Veil’s words shut us out: “Living conditions in the camp [at Drancy] were psychologically difficult to cope with. Physically, they were also harsh . . .” The death march from Auschwitz was “a particularly horrific episode”.

Gradually, puzzlement at this detachment gives way to admiration for the woman behind the prose. Veil’s concern for fairness and balance, her mistrust of sentiment, and her restraint, all make her a poor storyteller but, I suspect, a wonderful woman. Occasionally we glimpse the burning spirit that must have kept her alive in Auschwitz: the beautiful creature sliding down the banisters in the castle of the commissioner of the French zone in postwar Germany, or leaving her young family to fly off on adventures with her friend, the daring aviator Jacqueline Auriol.

The reader will glean little sense of what it was like to be a woman in the 1970s acting in defiance of some of France’s most respected public figures and pushing through an unpopular reform with no political experience whatsoever. They will have to go to the archives to learn of the Gaullist MP Jean-Marie Daillet, who accused Veil of being prepared to see human embryos “thrown into gas chambers or filling the dustbins”.

Veil’s subsequent role as the first (elected) president of the European Parliament brought her into contact with most of the historic figures of the 20th century and, as a professional magistrate, her talent clearly is for judgement: we get a sense, not of what these people were like, but of whether or not they were morally reliable. Veil’s character assessments are unequivocal (she respected Thatcher but not Reagan, trusted Chirac but not Mitterrand, preferred Pompidou to Giscard) and, I would guess, bang-on. Her uncompromising nature has made her a stateswoman and not a politician, and her humility – “I have often obtained what I have in life by virtue of being a woman” – makes her an admirable human being, rather than a writer.

This article first appeared in the 13 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Easter 2009