AAbove the columns of the portico of the Pantheon in Paris, completed the year following the storming of the Bastille, a solemn inscription reads: “To the great men of a grateful nation”. Well over 200 years later, the famous mausoleum remains mainly the resting place of the male heroes of the French nation, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Jean Moulin. But on Tuesday, they will be joined by a black dancer, singer and civil rights activist from Missouri, who has spent her life breaking down barriers of exclusion.
Emmanuel Macron’s timely decision to grant entry to Josephine Baker carries powerful symbolism, as currents of xenophobia cross the French body politic ahead of the presidential election next spring. After taking advantage of an early rise in the polls, Eric Zemmour, the expert and author of far-right television, is expected to officially declare his candidacy next month. Mr. Zemmour’s heinous promotion of racial exclusivism has influenced the mainstream French right and is shaping the election campaign to a disturbing degree. The Élysée’s recognition of Baker – who fled segregated America for France in the 1920s – beckons for a more generous and inclusive country. The admission of the first black woman to the Pantheon is also an opportunity to reflect on one of the most remarkable 20th century figures.
After making a name for herself as a vaudeville dancer in New York City, Baker’s charisma and personality made her a sensation in Paris. At a time when French colonialism was generating a fascination with black art and culture, Baker made the most of freedoms not available in the United States. Less than two years after arriving in France in 1925, she would be the highest paid and most photographed woman in the world. Her singular rise came mainly on her own terms: she overturned racial and sexual stereotypes on the Folies Bergère stage, converted Parisians to jazz and never hid her bisexuality.
After becoming a French citizen in 1937, Baker risked her life working for the resistance during WWII, slipping documents between sheet music and using her fame to open doors and access information. After the war, she was the only woman to speak on the podium alongside Martin Luther King during the March on Washington. Back in France, she devotes her energies to drawing up a “rainbow” family of 12 adopted orphans from different ethnic backgrounds. Their lives would demonstrate, she hoped, that “racial hatred is unnatural. It is an invention of man.
The Elysee press release announcing Baker’s entry into the Pantheon Noted that as “resistant and indefatigable anti-racist, she has been in all the struggles which have united people of good will in France and in the world”. Mr. Macron did not always find the right note when he spoke about multiculturalism and diversity. But as he seeks to galvanize liberal sentiment at a time when right-wing presidential candidates are calling for a moratorium on non-EU immigration, it is a smart policy. It is also a fitting way to honor a courageous and inspiring French citizen who was arguably as important a figure in the history of black emancipation as Muhammad Ali.