Carved into the façade of the Panthéon, the huge domed stone structure in Paris’s Latin Quarter, are the words “Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante.” “To the great men, a grateful fatherland.” This is France’s secular temple to itself, a curious necropolis conceived during the French Revolution to celebrate a new cult of the nation around the bodies of its heroes.
Of the seventy-three people buried in the Panthéon, however, only two are women: Sophie Berthelot, who is there as the wife of the chemist Marcellin Berthelot; and Marie Curie, whose scientific work earned two Nobel Prizes, one for physics, in 1903, and chemistry, in 1911. While Curie is also buried with her husband, Pierre, with whom she shared her Nobel in physics, she was panthéonisé for her own achievements—albeit not until sixty years after her death.
From its inception, the Panthéon has been contested terrain, a theatre for clashing ideas on who qualifies as a “great man.” Only one person has been panthéonisé (induction into the Panthéon warrants its own verb) in this century: Alexandre Dumas, the author of “The Three Musketeers”—an easy but unimaginative pick. To be panthéonisé requires a form of funeral ceremony during which the remains of the honoree (sometimes, it has only been the heart) are carried in a coffin by French soldiers and laid to rest in the crypt beneath the building. The body of Dumas had to be disinterred a hundred and thirty-two years after his first burial.
Choosing people closer to the present has proved more difficult. In typical French fashion, the President of the Republic makes the selection; but when Nicolas Sarkozy proposed Albert Camus, in 2009, the writer’s family turned down the honor. In 2011, the French government put up a plaque for the Francophone poet Aimé Césaire, but he does not qualify as fully panthéonisé because he remains buried in Martinique.
The current President, François Hollande, apparently daunted by the prospect, commissioned a report from Philippe Bélaval, the director of the Centre for National Monuments, to try to figure out the kind of person who should be panthéonisé. The center also conducted an online survey and encouraged people to submit specific suggestions. In response, a number of feminist organizations have formed the Collectifs pour les femmes au Pantheon to make the case for finding women for the Panthéon.
The question of the Panthéon’s future has thus set off a national debate, a search for self-definition. Can one even really establish who the “great men”—or women—of a country’s history and culture are? Must the Panthéon represent what is now a much more diverse society, or should it just be appreciated as a quaint product of the nineteenth century? The Panthéon’s founders—a group of white men in powdered wigs, as they are depicted in one of the monument’s sculptural groups—believed that the values of the French Revolution were universal. But is that still the case?
The Pantheon has been from its inception a theatre of clashing ideas. The building itself, a grand neoclassical structure, was commissioned as a church by Louis XV, who laid the cornerstone in 1764. At two hundred and seventy-two feet—nearly the size of a thirty-story building—it was meant to be the tallest building in Paris. Construction was not completed until 1790; shortly thereafter the revolutionaries, who would guillotine Louis’s grandson, hoping to redirect religious zeal toward la patrie, converted the church to a mausoleum. Twice in the 19th century it was reconverted into a church and, even now, this quintessentially secular building is topped by a large cross.
The first person to be laid to rest in the Panthéon was the Comte de Mirabeau, the head of the revolutionary National Assembly, who died in 1791. But Mirabeau, who had favored a constitutional monarchy, was disinterred three years later as the revolution became more radical, and replaced by Jean-Paul Marat. His body, in turn, was removed when France turned against the Reign of Terror with which he was associated.
After two hundred and twenty-two years, only seventy-three people are buried in the Panthéon. The majority are there thanks to Napoleon, who used the Panthéon as a kind of resting ground for his loyal generals and supporters; few of them left a lasting mark on French life—some weren’t even French—and not many people today would think that they deserve to spend eternity alongside the likes of Voltaire and Rousseau. (The emperor himself is buried at Les Invalides, the city’s old military hospital, while the kings of France are in the crypt at the Basilica of Saint-Denis.)
The Panthéon only became the institution it is today in 1885, after the death of the poet, novelist, and staunch republican Victor Hugo. Supposedly, a million Frenchmen proudly accompanied his coffin to its burial there—a rare moment of national unity. The twentieth century saw the induction of Louis Braille; Émile Zola; Jean Moulin, a leader of the French Resistance who was captured and killed by the Nazis in 1943; and Félix Éboué, a colonial governor of Guadeloupe, a strong supporter of de Gaulle’s Free French Army, and the first man of African descent to be placed in the Panthéon.
There is, at least, a growing consensus that the next to be panthéonisé will be a woman. “The Republic will no longer ignore half of its children,” Bélaval wrote in his report, “and the totality of our population will as a result feel better integrated.”
One of the leading candidates is Olympe de Gouges, an eighteenth-century playwright and an early opponent of colonial slavery. In 1791, she published “The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen,” then was guillotined by Robespierre during the Reign of Terror, making her a genuine “fourfer”: woman, feminist, abolitionist, and martyr. However, the whereabouts of her body are unknown, depriving the public of the grand spectacle of the coffin being carried aloft into the Panthéon.
An outside candidate is Louise Michel, a militant early feminist and anarchist who joined with the Paris Commune of 1871 and was subsequently deported to the penal colony of New Caledonia, where she took the side of indigenous residents who revolted against France in 1878. Her association with violent demonstrations and anarchism has somewhat dimmed her prospects.
Bélaval appears to tip his hand toward more recent figures. “Our research shows that it is altogether possible to find in twentieth-century France women of various extractions, who, like many men, braved the greatest of trials including torture and deportation,” he writes. “Among these it seems preferable to support those that survived, transcended their suffering and continued their remarkable engagement for the transformation of society.”
That definition seems to be tailor-made for Germaine Tillion, who as an anthropologist wrote sympathetically about the Berbers of North Africa, was active in the French Resistance and survived a German concentration camp, and opposed the use of torture during the Algerian war. The emphasis on surviving might prove slightly trickier in the case of the writer and philosopher Simone Weil, who died during the Second World War partly as a result of reducing her diet to a bare minimum, out of a deep sense of identification with victims of the war.
There are already women honored at the Panthéon for a different sort of resistance to the Nazis. In 2007, under President Jacques Chirac, the French held a large ceremony to inaugurate a plaque for over twenty-six hundred French citizens recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous among the Nations” for having risked their lives to help Jews during the Second World War. Hundreds of them are women; few are famous anywhere.
“It is not easy to define what heroic behavior or a heroic person is today,” Bélaval admits. The idea of greatness is changing. “The Internet users we consulted mostly seem less enthusiastic about military exploits, diplomatic or political successes, and more attached to civic, intellectual and humanitarian engagement.” There is also a tendency today to consider collective and not merely grand individual achievements.
The French sociologist Émile Durkheim wrote, in 1883, “There are two types of men: the great and the small.” Since then, as the French historian Mona Ozouf wrote, “we have become less certain of great men bearing great lessons.” And yet it seems almost certain that the Panthéon tradition of individual honors will continue, perhaps precisely because national identification with values of the Republic is weaker and more uncertain.
“Studies of public opinion show that the Panthéon is insufficiently known to younger people and less well-off people,” Bélaval writes. Honoring individuals “permits us to give a concrete form to abstract ideas that make up our Republican pact and to inscribe everyone in the same community, whatever their origins, convictions, beliefs or level of knowledge.” Although France is unlikely to remove the Panthéon’s inscription to the “grandes hommes,” Bélaval suggests we think of it as “celebration of illustrious people.”
If the Panthéon wants to make a big splash, it might consider a final, possibly surprising, candidate: Josephine Baker, the black American dancer who delighted French crowds at the Folies Bergère while wearing little more than clusters of bananas for a costume. What is less remembered, at least in this country, is that Baker earned her French citizenship in 1937, then worked as an agent of the French government and the anti-Nazi resistance during the Second World War. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre and made a Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur by General de Gaulle after the war. Baker was also a prominent spokesperson for racial equality well before civil rights became a popular cause. Perhaps the Republic isn’t ready to kick up its heels quite that high, but for an august French institution, it would be a move in the spirit of the revolution in which he Panthéon was born.
Photograph: Godong/UIG via Getty.