For many analysts, the French presidential campaign really began on Tuesday. Not only because it was the day that far-right polemicist Éric Zemmour, the man who has turned the conservative camp even further right-wing, officially launched his candidacy. The race to the Elysee started because on the same day, its current tenant and candidate for reelection, Emmanuel Macron, presided over the entry into the French Pantheon of Joséphine Baker. With her, a vedete of humble and foreign origin (American), a woman (only the sixth to enter the Pantheon) and a black woman (the first) arrive at the great secular temple of France. But, above all, comes a tireless fighter against the fascisms that swept through Europe in her time and for civil rights and freedoms for men and women of all races and origins.
Five months after the French elections, Joséphine Baker (Saint Louis, 1906-Paris, 1975) thus becomes a symbol of what is – or believes it is – a country in which, while some cry out against what they consider the end of the national (white) identity of France and want to toughen the conditions to be “French”, others defend a nation built and enriched thanks to its diversity.
“[Joséphine Baker] fought for freedom. Its cause was universalism, the unity of the human race, the equality of all before the identity of each one, the acceptance of all differences brought together by the same will, the same dignity ”, said Macron before the cenotaph of Baker, covered with the French flag and accompanied by the five medals, including that of the Legion of Honor, which he received for his political commitment and his active participation in the Resistance. The remains of the artist and activist will remain buried in the Monaco cemetery along with her husband and one of the 12 children adopted from her “rainbow tribe”, as she called a family made up of various nationalities and races which, as Macron recalled , also instilled the values of “tolerance, secularism, taste for equality and fraternity.”
The presidential battle, or at least that of ideas and symbols, began hours before. At noon, Zemmour launched his campaign with a video in which he presents himself as the defender of a lost France (and white, as the images that accompanied his speech make clear) in the face of today’s society (black men confronting the police, women with an Islamic veil) conflictive and divided, on the verge of losing her identity due to immigration that “is not the cause of all the problems, although it does aggravate them all,” she says. The brand-new candidate speaks seated, reading some papers before an old microphone with a bookstore in the background, imitating the famous call of July 18, 1940 of General Charles de Gaulle to resistance against the Nazi occupation, in which Joséphine was already fully committed. Baker. Zemmour, who faces a trial for incitement to hatred and racial insult, has been harshly criticized, among other issues, for claiming that the collaborationist regime of Marshal Pétain against whom de Gaulle called to fight “saved” the Jews French.
At the same time that Zemmour launched his online campaign, Macron recalled on the same social networks the imminent entry of Baker into the Pantheon with a video that highlights not only his successful artistic career, but his role as an “icon of resistance and the anti-racist struggle ”recognized especially by De Gaulle, with whom the artist maintained a close relationship. The contrast with Zemmour’s vision of France could not be greater.
The Elysee has denied any political interest with the entry into the Baker Pantheon. But since Macron announced it, at the end of August, it has been interpreted as a call to celebrate what unites the French after a five-year period of multiple fractures: from the social unrest revealed by the movement of the yellow vests to the riots that these days are registered in the Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, where protests originated by the opposition to the coronavirus vaccine have reopened an old socio-economic and racial conflict.
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But the entry of a black woman of foreign origin into the Pantheon also has another dimension for a president accused of looking too far to the right. Because Macron, currently at odds with London over the migration crisis in the English Channel, where 27 people died a week ago, has maintained a harsh discourse on this matter, as he has been repeatedly reproached by the opposition on the left.
In any case, some of Macron’s rivals in the presidential elections have not wanted the president to be the only one to celebrate the artist. Baker “will forever be the face of a France proud of its diversity, its humanism and its values,” declared the socialist candidate, Anne Hidalgo, invited to the ceremony as mayor of Paris. Against racism and anti-Semitism, in America, in France and beyond. Joséphine Baker, thank you for embodying universalist values with such energy, ”environmental candidate Yannick Jadot tweeted. “A model of insubmissive for her life,” said France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Even Macron’s maximum rival – and Zemmour – on the right, Marine Le Pen, said she welcomed the recognition of a woman who “shone in her defense of France.”
The women’s hour at the Pantheon?
Joséphine Baker is the second woman to enter the Pantheon in the last three years, after the 2018 entry of former minister Simone Veil. But with them there are only six, out of a total of 80 personalities, women who rest in the great secular temple in Paris dedicated, as an inscription on its pediment indicates, “to the great men” of the country. For Tuesday’s ceremony, the phrase was discreetly covered with a play of light. But the debate demanding a greater presence of women does not stop.
Elíseo claims to be open to a discussion that, remember, is not new. And she stresses that thanks to President Emmanuel Macron the number of women in the Pantheon has tripled. Critics recall that it could have done more. How to accept the proposal to include another iconic woman: the lawyer Giselle Halimi, who died in 2020. According to the French press, despite being a key figure in contemporary feminism that would have been a strong gesture towards women, Macron backed down due to to the rejection in some sectors that the election of Halimi could provoke, who also stood out for his activism during the controversial war in Algeria.
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