French women fight for their place in the Pantheon

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Feminist activists outside the Pantheon in Paris (26 August 2013)Image source, AFP

"Aux grands hommes la patrie reconnaissante": To its great men, a grateful nation. An inscription inside the Pantheon speaks volumes about who matters in French history. And who does not.

Of the 74 people who have been admitted to the holy-of-Republican-holies over the last two centuries, only two are women. They are Marie Curie and Sophie Berthelot.

And Sophie Berthelot hardly counts as she is only there as the wife of a famous man (the 19th-Century chemist Marcellin Berthelot).

But to each age, its heroes.

And today a consensus is building in France that the next person or persons to be honoured in the Pantheon should be from that half of the population which has till now been almost totally overlooked.

"It would be quite inconsistent to fight for gender parity in the National Assembly, and then to ignore it in the Pantheon," says the philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.

"For the French, the Pantheon is a kind of assembly. An assembly of ghosts, perhaps, but one which represents French values and legitimacy as much as or more than any political body. And the lack of women there is flagrant."

'Dare to be feminist'

The campaign for women in the Pantheon was kick-started by President Francois Hollande. On International Women's Day in March, he made a speech hinting strongly that it was time to start redressing the gender balance.

"I was in the room when he made that speech, and I said to myself ,'Right - he's made a promise - now let's get him to stick to it!"

So says Anne-Cecile Mailfert, head of Osez Le Feminisme (Dare to be Feminist), which with a number of other groups staged a demonstration last month on the street outside the Pantheon.

"For us it is not just about honouring this or that woman. It is a political demand relating to today. The lack of women in the Pantheon reflects the lack of recognition of women in today's society, whether in politics or the boardroom or in the pension system," she says.

Osez Le Feminisme has launched an online petition to put pressure on the government to name a woman to the Pantheon as soon as possible.

"And it won't be good enough to name a woman AND a man. It has to be just women," says Ms Mailfert.

Coincidentally or not, at the same time the body that runs the Pantheon - the Centre for National Monuments (CMN) - has also just launched an online survey, asking the public to submit names for admission.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The lives of Pantheon luminaries must reflect the values of the Republic

CMN director Philippe Belaval has been asked by President Hollande to produce a policy document later this month on ways to make the Pantheon more relevant to the French.

"The French hold the building with a great deal of respect, but we have to admit it is rather cold and austere. All those tombs," says Belaval.

Mr Belaval won't say as much - "It's the president's decision" - but quite clearly one recommendation is going to be to bring in a woman, or women.

"The criteria will be exactly the same as for men. They must have reflected in their lives the values of the Republic. But I can assure you there is no lack of ladies who fulfil those criteria," says Mr Belaval.

"If the president chooses to bring in several ladies, there will be plenty to choose from."

No easy consensus

So who are the names? Osez Le Feminisme has chosen five.

They are the revolutionary proto-feminist Olympe de Gouges; the anti-slavery campaigner Solitude; the heroine of the 1871 Paris Commune Louise Michel; wartime resistance fighter Germaine Tillion; and the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir.

To which might be added the writers Georges Sand, Germaine de Stael and Marguerite Duras, the resistance leader Lucie Aubrac etc etc.

However, as Philippe Belaval points out: "The question of who to admit to the Pantheon has always been the source of enormous controversy. It is the most un-consensual of national monuments."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The building's display of religious artefacts remains a source of controversy for many French

That is because of France's divisive history - and also the building's own divisive origins.

Originally built as a church, it was deconsecrated in the Revolution and turned into a kind of Republican Valhalla.

In the 19th Century it was reconsecrated more than once before definitively becoming the Pantheon again in the 1880s.

Even today, if you look behind the massive revolutionary sculpture where the altar used to be, there are religious images all over the walls. And outside, on the apex of the dome, stands a cross.

"I get hundreds of angry letters from people telling me to take down the cross," says Mr Belaval. "But I always reply that it's part of the building's history."

When it comes to the question of which women to admit, consensus will not be simple either.

The choice of Olympe de Gouges might inflame the far left (as a moderate revolutionary she was executed in the Terror); while the Communard Louise Michel would anger the right.

So little is known about the Guadeloupe-born Solitude that she is an almost mythical figure, while - according to Bernard Henri-Levy - Simone de Beauvoir would regard going to the Pantheon as an insult.

"Luckily there are a few moments of French history we can unite behind, and the most important is the Resistance," says Henri-Levy

"That was when there really were heroes and heroines ready to fight fascism and to die for the honour of France. So I would go for Tillion or Aubrac."