A two-time Cabinet minister, she was best known in France for leading the heated battle to legalize abortion in the 1970s. France's abortion rights law is still known four decades later as the "Loi Veil," and she called it her proudest accomplishment. In a country where many women are hesitant to call themselves feminists, Veil embraced the label. 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.
Veil said it was her experiences in the Nazi concentration camps that made her a firm believer in the unification of Europe. Her own rise from former deportee to the head of the European Parliament was a potent symbol of that sought-after peace, she said.
Born Simone Jacob in Nice, France 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 Veil, her parents, and all but one of her siblings. Then 16-year-old Veil, her sister, and mother ended up at the Auschwitz-Birkenau's death camps. Her father and brother were sent to a camp in a Baltic country. They were never seen again.
Young and healthy when she entered Birkenau, Veil caught the eye of a Polish woman who helped run the camp. The woman told her she would help her survive.
She sent Veil, her mother, and sister to work at a Siemens factory outside the camp. Later, Veil was transferred to work in an SS kitchen, where she was able to pilfer bits of food for her mother.
Her efforts were in vain. Veil's mother died of typhus at the Bergen-Belsen camp. Her sister survived, returning to France with Veil after the war.
Upon her return, Veil pursued a law degree at Paris' prestigious Institut d'Etudes Politiques. There, she met Antoine Veil, a public servant, and the two married in 1946.
She became a judge and worked for seven years in France's department of corrections, where she fought to improve prison conditions.
In 1974, President Valery Giscard d'Estaing plucked her out of relative obscurity, appointing her health minister — to her surprise. The appointment thrust her into the center of the fight over abortion, which Giscard d'Estaing had pledged to legalize.
The most visible proponent of the controversial legislation, Veil 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 Veil "wanted to send children to the ovens" famously reduced her to tears.
In 1979, Veil ran in the European Parliament's first popular elections on the Center for Europe party ticket. Fellow lawmakers elected her president, making her the first woman to head the legislature. She served as president until 1982 and remained in the Parliament until 1993.
She then served again as health minister from 1993 to 1995, under Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.
Veil returned to Auschwitz to commemorate the 60th anniversary of its liberation in January 2005. By then, Auschwitz "was just a bunch of crumbling buildings," she told the AP in 2007. "Without the people doing the killing, it was no longer a frightening place."
Veil's political popularity took a bruising when she came out in support of conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential elections. Critics lashed out at Veil for endorsing a candidate known for his tough stance on illegal immigration and who created a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity.
Veil said she was surprised by the attacks but largely shrugged them off. More than 30 years after the abortion battle, she said she still got hate mail on the issue.
"I am used to such abuse," Veil said.
In 2010, she was inducted into the Academie Francaise, becoming the sixth woman to join the guardian of the French language since it was founded in 1635.