Josephine Baker, the French-American dancer and singer who fought in the French Resistance and later battled racism, will become the first black woman to enter the Pantheon, France’s most hallowed resting place, on Tuesday.
The domed mausoleum in the heart of Paris, modelled on the Pantheon in Rome, holds the remains of legendary figures in France’s history from the worlds of politics, culture and science.
Seventy men including the philosophers Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau lie next to literary luminaries such as Alexandre Dumas, Emile Zola and Victor Hugo.
Only five women before Baker were allowed through its grand portals, which are crowned with an inscription proclaiming: “To great men from a grateful nation.”
The declaration has long been a red rag to feminists, who see it as deeply sexist and regularly protest to have it changed.
Simone Veil, a former French minister who survived the Holocaust and fought for abortion rights, was the last woman to be admitted in 2018.
She joined the scientist Marie Curie, Resistance heroes Genevieve de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Germaine Tillion and Sophie Berthelot, who was buried alongside her chemist husband Marcellin Berthelot.
The French president decides who has the right to be laid to rest there.
President Emmanuel Macron rejected a campaign earlier this year to rebury the French poet Arthur Rimbaud there, both to honour his work as a poet and his newfound fame as a gay icon.
However, descendants can overrule the president, as happened when the family of existentialist writer Albert Camus thwarted a bid in 2009 by then-president Nicolas Sarkozy to move his remains to the Pantheon.
Veil’s admission prompted a sharp rise in visitors to 860,000 a year, but a far cry from the millions who flock to the Eiffel Tower. — AFP