The cenotaph of Joséphine Baker is being carried towards the Pantheon. The artist’s gravestone will remain in Monaco.

Burying a figure in the Pantheon is not just marking history : in France, it’s also politics.

My France, its Josephine” Emmanuel Macron said as he delivered his speech during Josephine Baker’s entry in the Pantheon. The empty coffin of the first Black woman ever to enter the Pantheon had just finished climbing up the hill towards the monument. Traditional resistance chants and the artist’s own songs peppered the ceremony on the night of 30th November. 

Since 1791, the Pantheon has been a way to honor the memory of France’s heroes. Starting from the Vth Republic, French presidents held the power to choose who will get buried in the secular temple. Only exemplary figures get to enter as they embody French values as well as the vision of the current Head of State.

As tradition dictates, all major television and radio networks were covering the event. Around 6.2 million viewers watched the commemoration on TV, while many Parisians flooded around Soufflot Street, where a long red carpet had been laid all the way to the Pantheon.

« Josephine Baker allows Emmanuel Macron to win on all fronts »

But why her, and why now? 

Many had already advocated for Josephine Baker to enter the Pantheon. In 2013, the writer Régis Debray had published an op-ed in Le Monde which the then French president, François Hollande, chose not to act upon. Six years later, in 2019, a petition -‘Dare Joséphine!’- was launched by essayist Laurent Kupferman. The latter gained larger momentum in 2021, and on the 21st of July, the current head of state finally answered positively: « it’s a yes ».

The timing is not a mere coincidence : the first round of the French Presidential election is taking place in five months, on the 10th of April. Now is time for a consensual figure to be celebrated. Josephine Baker stands strong as a unifying personality in France, inviting hardly any criticism after the announcement.

Archives of Josephine Baker appeared on large screens during the ceremony. In this photo, she is giving a speech at the March of Washington, in 1963.

Archives of Josephine Baker appeared on large screens during the ceremony. In this photo, she is giving a speech at the March of Washington, in 1963.

« Josephine Baker allows Emmanuel Macron to win on all fronts », specialist of colonial and post-colonial History at Lausanne University, Professor Nicolas Brancel says. The artist « allows each side to be satisfied : she undeniably fought against racism, but she also glorifies France, delighting nationalists. Macron can show how he recognizes France’s modern demographic face », he adds.

Picking a side in a polarized fight

One should not consider Josephine Baker a simple manifestation of diversity. Not only was she part of the French Resistance, using her artist status to find and deliver information for the Allies, but she was also a well known civil rights activist. In 1963, she came to the March of Washington, in support of Martin Luther King. However, deeply influenced by France in her fight against racism, she chose to be an activist with the notorious International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA). As a result, Baker’s conception of anti-racism did not borrow much from that of America. For French presidency, she is an embodiment of legitimate anti-racism : a pure universalist*. 

The sudden urge to reaffirm France as a universalist country resulted from the growth of new anti-racism movements in recent years. These groups – such as les Indigènes de la République – reject the current universalist doctrine, which they consider to be color blind. Instead, they focus on the specific experiences of religious and racial minorities, using concepts such as white privilege and systemic racism. An approach that is not new according to Prof. Brancel : « The idea of asserting oneself as Black already existed in the 1920s, among anti-colonialist movements. But starting in the 2000s, new anti-racism groups have been on the rise, with the idea of affirming oneself as a Black person – without the context of an active colonization», he explains.

The rise of these new viewpoints have led the LICRA to qualify this rejection of universalism as « destructive » and « dangerous » rhetoric in their fight against racism. « Universalism is a fundamental value : it gathers people from right-wing to left-wing and allows us to fight for all human beings », Vice-President of LICRA, Philippe Schmidt says. For the association, Josephine Baker’s entry in the Pantheon is good news : « Not only was Josephine Baker an extraordinary person but she also had a real universalist vision. We share the same values. » he concludes.

The art of balance in Macron’s politics

In response to these limited but growing critiques of French colonial history and racism, Macron chose a dual historical figure. Josephine Baker speaks for his recognition of post-colonialism issues, as he showed by qualifying colonialism as ‘a crime against humanity’ and giving back looted art to Benin last November. But she also allows him to bring back universalism as a powerful argument. Protecting this specific value actually meets the expectations of most French society, among which 68% do not consider white privilege to exist.

As the presidential election is looming closer and closer, Emmanuel Macron is striving towards a wobbly balance which might allow him to retain part of his right-wing electorate. Amid growing concerns about far-right figure Éric Zemmour gaining momentum these past months, inducting Joséphine Baker gives the current President a clear advantage : being able to stand strong as an anti-racism President while also appeasing his more conservative electorate.

  • universalism : Principle which states that the French Republic and its values are universal. All French citizens are equal, regardless of their race, gender, culture or religion. Under this pretense, all discriminations could exist and are not limited to a specific gender and/or race.

pictures by Émo Touré