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Pioneering female politician Antoinette Spaak dies at 92

Antoinette Spaak (1928-2020). © Belga

Antoinette Spaak, Belgium’s first-ever female party president, has died at the age of 92, the current president of DéFi, François De Smet announced.

Antoinette Spaak has just left us,” he posted on Twitter.

DéFI, but especially the political history of our country, has lost a great lady. She embodied politics at the highest level, in the noble sense, clinging to her beliefs while still conducting the struggle elegantly.”

Antoinette Spaak was born in Etterbeek in Brussels in June 1928, the daughter of socialist politician and sometime prime minister Paul-Henri Spaak. And her political DNA did not stop there.

Her grandmother, Marie Janson, was Belgium’s first woman senator, and her great grandfather, Paul-Emile Janson, was instrumental in developing a progressive wing of the liberal party, and was also prime minister.

Spaak studied philosophy and literature at the Free University in Brussels (VUB) and was elected in 1974 for the Francophone FDF for Brussels – the party that now calls itself DéFi. Just three years later she became the country’s first woman party president.

She remained in office until 1983, when she was given by King Baudouin the title of Minister of State – an honorary title similar to Britain’s Privy Council. She also happened to be the first woman ever to be given the honour.

Spaak sat in the European Parliament from 1979 to 1984, and again from 1994 to 1999, with a term as president of the French Community Council. She also sat on the municipal council of Ixelles until September 2001, though she continued to lobby for the rights of French-speakers.

Olivier Maingain, another former president of her party, said, “To the FDF, she brought a rather rare analytical strength and political sense. She had certainly inherited from her father, to whom she was particularly close, this keenness to know what to do at the right time, knowing what were her means, her weapons, and what she had to obtain.”

Party colleague, minister and mayor of Schaerbeek Bernard Clerfayt commented, “She had an ability to express herself clearly, to be understood by everyone. She once told me that when she was getting ready to be on TV programmes, she would talk to her concierge about it. And when she had the words to explain it to him, she had the words to tell everyone about it. It was very important for her that everyone understood the political message.”

Prime minister Sophie Wilmès, whose party MR Spaak was instrumental in creating, posted on Twitter, “Our country has lost a great lady. Minister of State Antoinette Spaak was a top politician, the first female party chairman ever. I was able to meet her one day, and it has always stayed with me. My deepest condolences to her family and her loved ones.”

Spaak is survived by her life partner, the businessman Etienne Davignon.

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times

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