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July 3, 2018 4:37 pm

Bernard-Henri Lévy: Simone Veil, Emmanuel Macron, and the Panthéon

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avatar by Bernard-Henri Lévy


The flag-draped coffins of late Auschwitz survivor and French Health Minister Simone Veil and her late husband Antoine Veil are carried by members of the French Gardes Republicains during a national tribute before being laid to rest in the crypt of the Panthéon mausoleum, in Paris, France, July 1, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Philippe Wojazer.

For those who are old enough to have lived through both events, the comparison was undoubtedly remarkable: the induction of Simone Veil in France’s Panthéon, the country’s secular and grand mausoleum of its most distinguished citizens, this was more or less a juxtaposition of the 1981 inauguration of President François Mitterrand at the same spot, he alone among the tombs, infinitely solemn, the day after his election, nearly forty years ago.

Was it the youth of today’s French president that made the difference?  

Emmanuel Macron’s careful lyricism, with Virgilian undercurrents, that a hint of emotion made him, at times, tremble? 

Was it this air of a holy Sunday, with the Parisian heat that cast golden rays on the soldier’s stately helmets?  

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Was it because of the royal blue carpet (maybe the blue of Europe’s founders Robert Schuman or Jean Monnet… maybe the blue of Beethoven…) cascading down to the crowd and that the eye, like a mirage, could not help but filling with a constellation of twelve stars? Was it the pancartes — “Thank you Simone” — that lit up the walls of Paris and expressed the humble, naive but intense Republican devotion for a modern Madonna?

The fact is here.

The 1981 Mitterrand episode, which celebrated a fine victory, felt somewhat sepulcral and left a taste of cinders.

There was in this moment, dedicated to a deceased woman, an aroma of hope and of a paradoxical life.

Macron rightly articulated the importance of Sunday’s induction. 

He noted, through a discreet reminder of the Kaddish which this Auschwitz survivor had requested be recited at her first burial, that it is the first time that the Shoah was introduced into the beating heart of French remembrance: as if was to be buried here, between Jean Jaurès and Voltaire, among the illustrious masks and joint hands of the kings of spirit, the atrocious part of a nation which endorsed, once and for all — how better to say it — this darkest period of its history.

He recalled that, if it is not the first time that “the grateful homeland” observes, in welcoming a great woman, the incongruity of the mention to only “great men” engraved in the marble of the Panthéon, it is only today that an interment in its own right could level the last prejudices: if I have the right to mount the scaffold, why not the speaker’s rostrum, feminist political activist Olympe de Gouges stated in her “Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen” (1791)? And it is true that so many women were subjected, until the 1975 Veil law legalizing abortion, to affliction and shame, and so few to the laurels of the colonnade of this temple of French heroism. Here they are redeemed, one muses, by a survivor of the camps who appeared to incarnate, with her agate eyes, the last embodiment of the heroism invented by Antigone in the face of Creon. 

And finally the president expressed how this will to celebrate a European destiny at the hour where the braggarts refuse the reception of a simple skiff of refugees to the banks of a continent founded, as the legend goes, by Aeneas, the preeminent hero of those who flee the wars at the heels of their turmoils, was a barrier against the venomous winds that, afresh, rise up: remember Joris Ivens, the spouse of Marceline Loridan-Ivens, who was Simone Veil’s friend and fellow deportee; didn’t he explain, in his film “A Tale of the Wind,” that nearly nothing can stop a venomous wind that swells ? What if the first president of the European Parliament, with her past of suffering and resistance, with her joint love of France and of Europe, was one of these nearly nothings and miracles?

Enter here, Simone Veil, seemed to beckon the people of Paris who escorted the catafalque.

Enter here, Simone Jacob, imparted the president in a obscure harkening to the celebration of the Name extolled by the Sages of Israel. 

Enter in this crypt where you will stand alongside the Righteous who were not able to save your mother but who saved so many other lives that they merited to be inscribed, before you, as you are, in the history of French grandeur.

Well rarely this peculiar place “emerging there like a diving suit” mocked by Louis Aragon in his “Poems From Beyond the Grave,” will have seemed so inspired as on this day.

Seldom this strange project to bring together the deceased in an imaginary museum and secular basilica, never has this profane cathedral of disenchanted times that we visit with the same gaze and gait as the Musée d’Orsay or the Opéra Garnier, seemed so filled with spirit and meaning.

An entry to the Panthéon, until now, it was, at worst, a formal addition to official tributes; at best, this quasi pagan rite that the breath of André Malraux, author and France’s first minister of culture, seemed to have definitively adorned with darkness; the admission of Simone Veil below this dome was a luminous moment in the life of Paris — a political moment in its own right, in the best sense of the word; one of these moments of fraternity where the republic unites in admiration for her guardians and attempts to share in the power of purity and soul.

Simone Veil, henceforth, rests among her own.

Antoine, of course, her husband, who, 70 years ago, reawakened her taste for life: to believe that it is she, now, to take and carry him into the night of the deceased, as a final chapter of a gracious act of love.

But also the names of the humble where rings the French grandeur that she thereby joins — to begin, around their two inseparable caskets, with these four musketeers who are Jean Moulin, unifier of the French Resistance, René Cassin, jurist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Jean Monnet, founding father of the European Union and, of course, André Malraux: they will be, for all eternity, the recumbent knights of a little Jewish girl, who became, for our French generations and those to follow, the incarnation of a certain idea of courage.

What arrived, on this picturesque Sunday in summer, from the vaults and the angel’s voices of the Panthéon, was a crystal-clear sarabande by Johann Sebastian Bach that transfixed all who listened to it.

There remains, in the air at times stifling from a haunted epoch by the return of its worst phantoms, a scent of common holiness which — the final miracle of Simone Veil — binds those who were the witnesses, or, even more so, the actors of this page of the history of France. 

Translated from French by Emily Hamilton.

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