Entertainer, civil rights activist and spy: Josephine Baker has become the first black woman to be memorialised in the Panthéon in Paris — an honour bestowed by the French president only on those seen as national heroes.
President Emmanuel Macron, who is hoping to secure his second term in an election in less than five months, led the nationally televised ceremony on Tuesday evening. In his speech, he described Baker as someone who had “made the right choices at every turn of history”, and said: “You enter our Panthéon because, born American, there is no one more French than you.”
The ceremony drew large crowds of young and old along the Rue Soufflot who watched as six members of the French air and space force carried a symbolic cenotaph, a memorial to someone buried elsewhere, covered with the French flag, along a red carpet to the Panthéon. In the background, Baker’s voice was heard singing “Me revoilà Paris” — I’m back in Paris.
At her family’s request, Baker’s body is remaining in Monaco where she was buried in 1975, while she is remembered in a casket with soil from the US, France and Monaco in the Panthéon. She is only the sixth woman to be “pantheonised” and joins the likes of Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Voltaire.
Politicians, organisations and fans have campaigned for years to include Baker in the Panthéon, with a recent petition by essayist Laurent Kupferman reviving the debate.
But many also view the timing of her entry into the hall of French greats as a timely political move by Macron and an attempt to reconcile the nation at a time of intense debate over immigration, France’s colonial past and feminism.
Baker, born in poverty in St Louis, Missouri, in 1906, was one of several black American artists and writers, including author James Baldwin and jazzman Miles Davis, who sought refuge from American racism in France.
In an interview with the Guardian in 1974, less than a year before her death, she said: “I became famous first in France in the Twenties. I just couldn’t stand America and I was one of the first coloured Americans to move to Paris.”
Her story of coming to France to escape the racism of the US, but also rising to fame in Paris while once performing in only a beaded necklace and a skirt of artificial bananas, makes Baker a controversial symbol among some despite her universal popularity.
A dancer and entertainer who in 1927 was the first black woman to star in a major film production, Baker went on to campaign for civil rights with Martin Luther King and was decorated for spying for the French resistance movement, smuggling hidden messages in her sheet music.
She renounced her American citizenship in 1937, bought a château in the south of France and adopted 12 children from different countries.
The support committee working on Baker’s inclusion in the Panthéon, which includes her son Brian Bouillon-Baker, told AFP: “We pay tribute to her commitment to republican values.” It also recalled that she had said of France: “Here they take me for a person and they do not look at me as a colour.”
Additional reporting by Domitille Alain in Paris