Simone Veil, a survivor of the Nazi death camps and prominent proponent of Europe’s integration, has died at the age of 89.
Ms Veil spearheaded abortion rights as one of France’s most prominent female politicians.
The office of her son Jean Veil said she had died, without providing further information.
One of France’s most widely respected politicians on both sides of the political spectrum, she was a centrist who was president of the European Parliament and a French cabinet minister.
Ms Veil said it was her experiences in the Nazi concentration camps that made her a firm believer in the unification of Europe.
She was an avowed feminist, and France’s abortion rights law is still known four decades later as the “Loi Veil”.
“The idea of war was for me something terrible,” Ms Veil said in a 2007 interview. “The only possible option was to make peace.”
Her rise from former deportee to the head of the European Parliament was a potent symbol of that sought-after peace, she said.
She saw herself as an advocate for the downtrodden, and devoted much of her early career to improving conditions in French prisons.
Later, she became one of the most visible faces of France’s dwindling community of Holocaust survivors and spoke passionately about the need to keep the memory alive.
Born Simone Jacob in the Mediterranean port city of Nice on July 13 1927, she was one of four children.
Her father worked as an architect until a 1941 law by France’s collaborationist Vichy government forced him – and other Jews – out of the profession.
In March 1944, the Gestapo arrested and deported Ms Veil, her parents and all but one of her siblings.
Ms Veil, who was 16 at the time, her sister and mother ended up at the death camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Her mother died in the camp, but Ms Veil and her sister survived.
Her father and brother were sent to a camp in a Baltic country. They were never seen again.
Following her death, Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust said: “Simone Veil was an inspiration. Having survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen, she became one of the leading female politicians of her generation. She dedicated her life to advocating for those most in need and rising to become a Minister of State and member of France’s Constitutional Council, as well as Chair of the European Parliament. She was a determined advocate for Holocaust awareness, playing an integral role in the establishment of the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris where she was Honorary President. The incredible things she achieved during her lifetime – against all odds – will be her legacy. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family.”
On her return, she took a law degree at Paris’s prestigious Institut d’Etudes Politiques. She became a judge and worked for seven years in France’s department of corrections, where she fought to improve prison conditions.
“Having had my freedom taken away gave me a real sense of empathy for prisoners,” Ms Veil said.
In 1974, centre-right president Valery Giscard d’Estaing plucked her out of relative obscurity, appointing her health minister – to her surprise. The appointment thrust her into the centre of the fight over abortion, which Mr Giscard d’Estaing had pledged to legalise.
The most visible proponent of the controversial legislation, she quickly became the target of vicious personal attacks as the battle over the bill raged on the floor of the legislature.
One anti-abortion lawmaker’s comment that Ms Veil “wanted to send children to the ovens” famously reduced her to tears.
She again served as health minister from 1993 to 1995, under prime minister Edouard Balladur.
In 1979, she ran in the European Parliament’s first popular elections on the Centre for Europe party ticket.
Fellow legislators elected her president with an absolute majority, making her the first woman to head the European Parliament. She served as president until 1982 and remained in the Parliament until 1993.