I found Simone Veil’s autobiography Une Vie while buying groceries in the Super-U. In France, culture and quality can be found everywhere, a characteristic that I adore in that country. It is a breathtaking book about a life that started in an ordinary, middle-class way and got heavily interrupted by the Second World War, went through the Nazi death camps and then on to government positions at the highest level of France and Europe. Compared to the intensity of that life, the book is short (343 pages Livre de Poche). There are many chapters where the reader would like to know more because her experiences are unique and give insights one rarely gets.
Simone Veil was a Holocaust survivor and she was also a major player in France’s after-war period. Une Vie tells a lot about the things she did, but her influence went much further than that because of who she was, a woman with clear principles that she followed in any function she would fulfill: ‘le sens de la justice, le respect de l’homme, la vigilance face à l’evolution de la société‘ (p. 262).
She says she liked politics but not the political game and indeed in her book the description of such games are rarely found. It is about the goals Simone Veil was going for and about what she achieved. The reader can only wonder how she did that. The same goes for all the positions she got – it seems to be just the natural flow of her life and it would be so interesting to learn more how she got there. The political part of Une Vie shows little relations or emotions; if I may criticize Une Vie, the only point by the way: this is not about living a (political) life, it is too factually descriptive for that (though very interesting).
Anyway I highly recommend this book that was translated in many languages; (just) some parts of the book that I found breathtaking:
* the description of the Holocaust, an inside story. ‘l’enfer‘ (p.53-89)
* the question whether governments should have stayed or left their countries during the Second World War. France hat the Vichy-régime that collaborated with the Nazis. Simone Veil always thought that was wrong, until she met Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands who told her how heavily her mother Queen Wilhelmina was criticized for leaving to Canada and thus ‘abandonning her people’. ‘aucun événement historique, aucun choix politique des gouvernants, surtout dans des périodes aussi troubles, n’entraîne des conséquences uniformément blanches ou noires‘. (p.46)
* the letters she got when she fought as Minister of Health for the first Law on Abortion in 1975. The verbal abuse was so terrible that her staff destroyed some letters. Simone Veil regrets that because these letters are witnesses of a history of reform and should have formed study material by now to remember that changes come with pain. ‘il faut rappeler aux esprits angéliques que les réformes de société s’effectuent toujours dans la douleur‘. (p.165)
* in the beginning of her European period she expected that in twenty years countries would go beyond their national frame. She found out that it doesn’t work like that and that everybody looks for their roots. Thus nowadays she compares the EU more to the aggregate of Russian matrushka puppets than a monolithic building. (p. 190)
* her ideas about human rights that she supported all her life; how militant activists rarely bring peace and rather increase human rights violations because their approach is too one-sided; that there are no universal human rights when it comes to business and other modus vivendi. ‘Au fond, ce sont toujours aux faibles que l’on fait la morale, tandis qu’on finit par blanchir les puissants‘. (p.194)
* Simone Veil concludes that she has become more and more a fighter for women’s rights because equal chances for women are not naturally based in laws or in the rules of the game. ‘Les chances, pour les femmes, procèdent trop du hasard‘. (p.258)