France’s héroïne

At 84, Simone Veil personifies the very best France has to offer.

Sarkozy greets Simone Veil (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sarkozy greets Simone Veil
(photo credit: REUTERS)
July 14. Today, garlanded in sunshine, is Bastille Day, la fête nationale (the national festival) commemorating the storming of the Bastille prison at the beginning of the French Revolution.
The nation sings lustily its rousing War Song for the Army of the Rhine, La Marseillaise: “Allons, enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!” (Arise, children of the Fatherland! The Day of Glory has come!) The head of state is leading the largest regular military parade in Europe. He rides along the tree-lined Champs-Élysées at the heart of this great republic, reviewing the serried ranks. And here he comes! President Nicolas Sarkozy is surrounded by a galloping escort of scarlet-plumed, golden-helmeted cavalry, and over 5,000 troops in combat gear. He looks solemn at first, for yesterday the Taliban murdered another five French soldiers (today, the 70th will die in Afghanistan). France is bombing Gaddafi in Tripoli, and trying to help keep the peace in Lebanon and Kosovo.
The responsibilities on the president’s shoulders are enormous.
The French press is complaining the nation can’t afford all these military commitments, and her troops are overstretched. But Monsieur Sarkozy wishes France to defend human rights around the world, and “boxer au-dessus de sa catégorie” (to box above her weight).
But suddenly he seems to see a friendly face in the crowd, for he smiles broadly and starts to wave.
He waves and waves, and seems transformed. As head of state, he is also supreme chief of the armed forces, and some criticize him for not snapping off a military salute. But he’s a civilian at heart, a lawyer by training, and a politician to his very marrow.
He arrives at the Tribune in the Place de la Concorde, once called Place de la Révolution. Here the fearful guillotine cut off the heads of Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Ever hungry, it demanded even more blood. So Robespierre and Danton, the revolutionary regicides, died their heads rolled here, too.
As he ascends the Tribune– oh! This is unscheduled! He has suddenly moved off track! He is not going to his seat! Where is he going? The president appears to have seen somebody. He has made a bee-line for her! “Qui c’est? Qui c’est?” all the people want to know – “Who is it? Who is it?” He kisses and embraces her warmly, spontaneously, both of them beaming, and they exchange some words. “Qui c’est? Qui c’es? Pass me the binoculars! Let me see! Who is it? Who is it? Oh! Veil! It’s Simone Veil!” An “Immortelle” – a member of the most exclusive Académie Française – she sits on Racine’s fauteuil.
The first woman president of the European Parliament (after direct elections), she was also health minister four times. So that she could be appointed as grand officier de la Légion d’honneur without having to pass through the obligatory lower grades, Monsieur Sarkozy himself had the rules changed. Last year, an Ifop poll found her to be France’s most popular woman, at the age of 84! Wow! In 1944, a tank of De Gaulle’s Free French destroyed the sole remaining German tank on this very stretch. To many, this symbolized the liberation of Paris from Nazi occupation. To Jews, it also meant the end of Paris’s convoys to the death camps. Madame Veil is honorary president of the Foundation for the Remembrance of the Shoah. This is of special significance for her. Indeed, her Immortelle’s sword has her Auschwitz tattoo number inscribed on it.
Also inscribed there is the French republic’s motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.” This Héroïne Niçoise savors those words, for she witnessed the worst that can happen when those ideals are discarded.
She lost her parents in the camps, but she managed to survive, rose to great heights, and now all the republic’s eyes are on her.
Though grieving for France’s fresh sacrifices on the altar of those ideals, this day is truly one of glory for the Republic and for her. She and the president are beaming. Jewry, like the rest of France, looks on happily, proud of their daughter.
And so we all sing, with great gusto, “Allons, enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé!
The writer is a multilingual international lawyer and frequent commentator on France. [email protected]