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Joséphine Baker enters the Pantheon of National Heroes

Host, civil rights activist and spy: Joséphine Baker became the first black woman to be commemorated at the Pantheon in Paris on Tuesday evening – an honor bestowed by the French president only on those considered national heroes.

President Emmanuel Macron, who hopes to secure his second term in an election in less than five months, led the nationally televised ceremony. In his speech, he described Baker as someone who had “made the right choices at every turn in history”, and said: “You enter our Hall of Fame because, born American, there is no one there. more French than you.

The ceremony drew large crowds of young and old alike along Rue Soufflot who saw six members of the French Air and Space Forces carry a symbolic cenotaph, a memorial to a person buried elsewhere, covered with the French flag, along ‘a red carpet at the Pantheon. In the background, Baker’s voice sang “Me again Paris” – I am back in Paris.

At the request of her family, Baker’s body remained in Monaco where she was buried in 1975, while she is remembered in a coffin with soil from the United States, France and Monaco in Pantheon. She is only the sixth woman to be “pantheonized” and joins Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Voltaire.

A cenotaph in memory of Joséphine Baker is brought to the Pantheon in Paris © Mohammed Badra / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

Politicians, organizations and fans have campaigned for years to include Baker in the Pantheon, with a recent petition from essayist Laurent Kupferman reignited the debate.

But many also see the timing of her entry into the hall of the great French 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 into poverty in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1906, was one of many 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 first became famous in France in the twenties. I just couldn’t stand America and was one of the first Americans of color to settle in Paris.

Her history of coming to France to escape racism from the United States, but also of becoming famous in Paris when she once wore only a pearl necklace and a skirt of artificial bananas, makes Baker a controversial symbol among some. despite its universal popularity.

A dancer and artist who in 1927 was the first black woman to star in a major film production, Baker continued to campaign for civil rights with Martin Luther King and was decorated for spying on the French resistance movement, making smuggle messages hidden in his score. .

She renounced her American nationality in 1937, bought a castle in the south of France and adopted 12 children from different countries.

The support committee working on the pantheonization of Baker, which includes among others his son Brian Bouillon-Baker, told AFP: “We pay tribute to his attachment to republican values”, recalling that she had said of France : “Here I am taken for a person and they do not regard me as a color.

Additional reporting by Domitille Alain in Paris


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