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Josephine Baker Enters The Panthéon As Macron Gears Up For Re-Election

Image credit: Pixabay

On the 30th November 2021, Josephine Baker was interred in the Panthéon, the first black woman to be honoured by the French republic in this way. Josephine Baker was an American-born cabaret artist, a singer and dancer who became famous performing at the Folies Bergère in 1920s Paris, where she was an international icon of the cabaret scene. During the war, she was part of the Resistance and the French air force, receiving honours in her lifetime for her service to her adopted country. Later in life, Baker was an activist, campaigning for civil rights in the United States and speaking on the same programme as Martin Luther King Jr., when the latter made his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Alongside all of her activism, Baker established her ‘Rainbow Tribe’, her family of adopted children from all over the world: Japan, Colombia, Finland, France, Algeria, the Ivory Coast, Venezuela, and Morocco. For her, they represented her own life philosophy of multiculturalism and tolerance, an example of how people from different races and religions can live in harmony.

Baker has now been consecrated in the Panthéon, where she will spend eternity rubbing shoulders with the grands hommes (great men) of French history, including Voltaire, Hugo, and Rousseau. Home to historic politicians, writers, and scientists, the Panthéon is a ‘secular temple’ where France buries and celebrates its heroes. What does Baker’s panthéonisation, and in particular President Macron’s speech, mean for the April presidential elections?

How has Baker found herself in the Panthéon?

At first glance, she does not seem an obvious choice, particularly when we take into account the provocative nature of her performances, and that she was born an American citizen. Generally speaking, the grands hommes in the Panthéon are unquestionable choices: quintessentially French, a participant of French politics, a defender of the nation in the face of invaders, someone who spreads French culture and values across the globe. But, in an interview he gave last July, Macron suggested that she is “synthetic of what it is to be French”, and in his speech at the end of November he made a very convincing argument.

To do so, he placed more emphasis on her activities in the Resistance and as an activist than he did on her performance career, which is understandable given the lack of artists in the Panthéon (whether the likes of Claude Monet, Claude Debussy, and Edith Piaf should be there is another discussion). Ultimately the decision to pantheonize individuals lies with the president, but he must in turn justify his choice to both conservative and progressive influences in French society. To do so, Macron focused on her contribution to the Resistance and the way she symbolised progressive, modern France. For both sides, an invocation of the values of the République was paramount, and Macron delivered on this too.

“War hero, fighter.” Then “dancer, singer.” The opening phrases of the president’s speech are revealing: Baker’s role in the Resistance is at the centre of this commemoration. By invoking her role in the Resistance, Macron placed Baker within a wider narrative in France of the commemoration of that particular history. She followed five other résistants into the Panthéon: Jean Moulin under the presidency of Charles de Gaulle in 1964; Brossolette, de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Tillon, and Zay in 2015 under François Hollande. Her son, Brian Brouillon-Baker: “The president explained to me that his decision was made because my mother had served France during the second world war… and for her work with LICRA” (the International League against Racism and Antisemitism). This demonstrates quite clearly the implicit criteria for pantheonization: those entered into the Pantheon must fit the idea of defending or advancing France. Similarly, by discussing her work as an activist in France and abroad, Macron suggests quite explicitly that this represents her adoption of French values, which is something we will return to later.

Baker’s entry into the Panthéon raises some interesting questions about the diversity, or lack thereof, among the residents there. As late as 1995, Marie Curie became the first woman to be pantheonized for more than being married to a grand homme, for her own achievements. Since then, the inclusion of Simone Veil, a magistrate and politician who made history as the first female president of the European Parliament, reignited some important conversations about honouring France’s grandes femmes. At the time, French sociologist Christine Détrez identified two main reasons for the lack of women in the Panthéon: a historic lack of access to university, art, science, and politics, and the (historical) role of women. These factors, she argues, have prevented women from becoming famous individuals in French history. We can see that as the position of women in society changes, more women are being honoured to reflect that: Veil, Curie, and now Baker, among others. Once Macron had appealed to the sensibilities of progressives and conservatives alike, now was his chance to take hold of the discussion and turn it toward the image of France he seeks to promote, by way of Baker’s life story.

Ma France, c’est Josephine

The rest of Macron’s speech gives out a clear message: Josephine Baker loved France, and its values (or at least those which Macron seems to love too). After becoming a French citizen in 1937, Baker was, for this French government, a shining example of the perfect citizen: one who adopted the values of the Republic wholeheartedly, one who “did not consider her new citizenship as a right, but above all a duty”. This quotation is a call to French citizens and non-citizens alike, to remember that they have an obligation to adhere to, and defend, the values of their nation.

Among those values is one that is quite intrinsically French: universalism. Since the French Revolution, there has existed the idea that one must be French before anything else, must recognise the importance of a universal set of French values. That is not to say that many don’t still identify with their religious or regional identities before their nationality, but I think it does explain the French attachment to centralised government and intolerance for regional dialects. To bring this back to Baker, we can turn to Macron’s speech once more: “Her cause was universalism, the unity of humankind, the equality of all before the identity of each person.” This rejection of individualism, in favour of a wider, national perspective, has been a key part of ‘Macronism’ during his presidency. At the beginning of 2020, he spoke about the threat of “Islamist separatism”, tapping into the long-standing debate about laïcité (essentially secularism) in French society (a topic of discussion for another time). By rehashing this longstanding idea of his into his speech in November, we can see that he is trying to attach his own vision of France to Baker.

Baker was also attached to liberty, that value seen by the French as their gift to the world following the French Revolution. “In front of the Lincoln Memorial [as part of the March on Washington, 1963], medal of the Resistance pinned to her jacket, she was more French than ever.” Even when campaigning for civil rights in the United States, Macron suggests that Baker’s Frenchness was unquestionable, that her campaign for the freedom of a discriminated and oppressed people was somehow an inherently French task.

Much of the coverage of this event, in France and abroad, focused on one fact: Josephine Baker was the first black woman to enter the Panthéon. The significance of this was not lost on commentators across the political spectrum, nor was it ignored during the ceremony. France is a nation with serious problems when it comes to gender and race (which are both yet more topics that merit their own essay). This is a nation that has never elected a female president and which has seen the Rassemblement National (better known as the Front National) on the rise for the last thirty years, scoring victories in local elections, and seeing its candidates reach the second round of the presidential elections in 2002 and 2017. In a political world full of divisive rhetoric concerning immigration and Islam in France, Macron took this opportunity to present the other side of France: the multicultural side that welcomed Baker and her compatriots when they left the racial segregation of the United States for 1920s Paris. This France, in turn, left its impression on Baker, who became a great champion for tolerance. That her “Rainbow Tribe” were placed on the front row of the ceremony shows that this is a value of Baker’s that Macron would like to attach to France, and to himself

The key message of Macron’s speech is perhaps that French citizenship is not a document or ethnicity, but rather a state of mind and a way of life. This can be heard as a message not just for French citizens, but also for France’s growing population of immigrants and ethnic minorities who hear a far more threatening tone from another French presidential candidate.

What does this mean for the presidential election?

By the end of April, the direction of French politics could take a significant turn. That would certainly be the case if radical candidate Éric Zemmour emerges victorious in the presidential election (10th-24th April). Zemmour, a journalist on the far-right, who has been convicted on a few occasions for inciting racial discrimination, racial hatred, and hatred towards Muslims. His rhetoric includes fearmongering about the rise of immigration, Islam in France, and the perpetuation of the idea of French ‘decline’, or as he titled one book: Le Suicide Français. In the past he has lamented the apparent “feminisation” of French society and has suggested he would reintroduce a law that would force new parents to give their children “French” names, an idea Macron has rejected. In short, a bit of a nasty character. Some even call him the ‘French Trump’. Whatever moniker is attached to him, he should set alarm bells ringing in France and across Europe. He is predicted to gather much of the far-right vote, which could be particularly damaging for Marine Le Pen’s Front National, previously France’s most right-wing party, which, since Le Pen took over from her father Jean-Marie, has dialled back the explicitly nationalist rhetoric, which sometimes manifested itself in racial and antisemtitic slurs from its leader. Although she reached the second round of the election in 2017, this change has driven more extreme elements away from the party toward Zemmour, and could be costly in 2022. As a result, Zemmour may well find himself face to face with Emmanuel Macron in the second round of the elections. (A quick word on the format of French elections: there are two rounds. The first sees the French public vote for around eight candidates, two of which proceed to the second round, where the winner is elected president.)

It is certain that the choice of Baker was a political one, with the intention of presenting a particular image of France to the French public in the build-up to the election. Macron took this opportunity to lead the discussion and to fashion the narrative of the moment to send out a particular message, which is that he is the opposite of Zemmour. He presented himself as “the unifier of this nation wounded by a crisis of health, economy, and identity”, as one commentator put it.

Indeed, Macron’s message is not dissimilar to Zemmour’s, albeit he has framed it very differently. Both call for an adherence to French values and ideas, above the ideas of ‘communities’ in France. However, Zemmour has gone so far as to suggest that Muslims in France should renounce the practice of their religion. Whereas Macron presents an invitation to participate in French society in a certain way, Zemmour’s call is much more aggressive, designed to win over far- and centre-right voters who are nostalgic for a France that perhaps didn’t exist.

There is a clear contrast between Macron’s image of Baker, and Zemmour’s image of France. Zemmour laments the rise of immigration. Macron celebrates Baker’s immigration, and her generation’s adoption and love of France. Zemmour seeks to revise the history of the Second World War, arguing Marshall Pétain, head of the collaborationist Vichy government during World War Two, was a “saviour” for Jews, despite France’s horrible participation in the Holocaust. Macron reminds us that Baker hid the Jewish family of her ex-husband. Macron, by way of Baker, has presented himself as the anti-Zemmour in the run-up to this election.

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By way of the pantheonization of Josephine Baker, the French government has promoted a particular image of France: a nation of liberty and tolerance, united by its adherence to its republican values. A society that welcomes foreigners who are willing to participate in French life as long as they follow its principles and ideas. President Macron has weaved his own ideas into the narrative of Baker’s life, presenting her as a symbol of his France. He has taken this opportunity to present himself as a unifying force for France as it steps cautiously out of the Covid era toward an uncertain future, in contrast to the divisive rhetoric of Zemmour.