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Simone Jacob was born in 1927 to a Jewish family in Nice, France. She was sent to the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and finally Bergen-Belsen. While she and her two sisters survived, her parents and brother died in the camps. She returned to Paris in May 1945 and began her studies in law and political science. 

She joined Giscard d’Estaing’s government as Minister for Health. Soon after her appointment, she fought a bitter battle to legalise abortion in France and only succeeded when the opposition in the national assembly joined her cause to push through the law in 1975. It was seen as a significant achievement and the law would become widely known as the ’Veil law’. 

As her political career in France progressed, she became more committed to the idea of a Europe in which such atrocities could never happen again. Veil was duly elected to the European Parliament, which chose her as its President, thus becoming leader of the first directly elected European Parliament and the first woman at the head of any EU institution. She also served as chair of the legal affairs committee and as a member of the environment, political affairs, foreign affairs and security committees, and the subcommittee on human rights. She won the Charlemagne Prize in 1981, the award given to honour a person’s contributions to European unity. 

From 2001 to 2007 she served as the first president of the Foundation for the Memory of the Shoah. 

When Veil was elected to the Académie Française in 2008, one of only a handful of women to receive such an honour, she had three things engraved on the ceremonial sword that is crafted for each member of the academy. These were: her Auschwitz tattoo number, 78651; the motto of the French Republic, ’Liberty Equality, Fraternity’; and the European Union motto, ‘United in Diversity’.