Paris: A matter of grave concern

JUNE 1 ― Like practically everyone else last week, I had my eye on the most prestigious place to be buried in France — the Panthéon in Paris.

Four French World War II heroes made it through its towering doors on Thursday, personally ushered in by President François Hollande.

Two of the new invitees were women, which has been the cause of much celebration here. And no wonder. For the only lady to be admitted on merit in the last 200 years was Marie Curie, the Nobel prizewinner for her work on radioactivity.

I know we are talking about the deceased; they’re hardly in a position to stress about where they are laid to rest, so long as it’s peaceful. But this is proving a matter of grave concern (sorry, I couldn’t resist) in the land of the living.

Since 1791, 69 males have been interred versus two females. The chemist Marcellin Berthelot insisted his wife be buried with him, keeping Ms Curie company too.

Such figures beg the question of why France’s remarkable women ― the history books tell us they do exist ― are so underrepresented in this majestic temple of honour?

I’ve read admission is “severely restricted” to acknowledge only those that have brought honour to the nation — the likes of Voltaire, Victor Hugo and Louis Braille. Although this didn’t stop Napoleon I’s invitee-fest when he was in power: the French emperor interred over half of the mausoleum’s occupants, many of whom are unknown to French society today.

London’s honorary tomb in Westminster Abbey (the source of inspiration for the Panthéon), paints a different picture. Online lists show that many accomplished women fill its stony crypts; I started to go a little cross-eyed when I reached 40.

President Hollande, staying true to his earlier campaign pledge for more “parité hommes-femmes” (male-female equality) from politics to the grave, nominated Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz and Germaine Tillion, alongside Jean Zay and Pierre Brossolette, for their efforts in the resistance movement against Nazi occupation of France.

Tillion was a leading commander in the French Resistance, and Gaulle-Anthonioz, Charles de Gaulle’s niece, expanded intelligence networks that helped the Allied forces. Two courageous ladies who survived the horrors of Ravensbrück concentration camp to continue their crusades for justice and human rights in postwar France long into their old age.  Tillion was a respected intellectual and ethnographer, and Gaulle-Anthonioz a notable human rights advocate.

Artistic impressions of the four French Resistance fighters, including two women, interred at The Pantheon last Thursday hang majestically over its entrance. ― Picture by Helen Hickey
Artistic impressions of the four French Resistance fighters, including two women, interred at The Pantheon last Thursday hang majestically over its entrance. ― Picture by Helen Hickey

For a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the choice of new entrants does seem an obvious one; although some have questioned President Hollande’s selection.

Anne Lazar, from the French feminist collective Georgette Sand, said: “We are lucky that two female resistance fighters were chosen, but they enter the Panthéon for their acts of heroism during the World War II not really for their life and their personal works.” Suggesting, perhaps, these ladies suited the prevailing war commemorations theme.

Regardless, this is a great moment. Activists have been campaigning for decades for female candidates deserving of France’s highest honour.  For women of exceptional intellectual and social accomplishments, as well as the rebels who dared to live unconventional lives.

Polls leading up to Hollande’s decision last February included Tillion as a popular nominee, and also:

* Simone de Beauvoir, a French writer, intellectual, feminist and political theorist.

* Singer Edith Piaf, whose name is closely associated with France internationally. 

* Olympe de Gouges, a French playwright and political activist.

* Josephine Baker, a dancer and jazz singer, born in the United States and later taking French citizenship, who used her fame to pass on secret military intelligence to the French resistance.

* George Sand, nom de plume of the great French writer Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, and from whom Lazar’s collective based its name.

A small selection of the many women who led exceptional lives in a society founded on deeply conformist ideals and strong patriarchal roots. A nation that was slow, by European standards, to give women the vote, has yet to appoint a female president and with few women in key professional positions.

So, bravo, President Hollande!

Even if he is the most unpopular president in French history, he should be praised for his efforts to bridge this gender-burial gap.

Perhaps he’ll have a quiet word with the stonemasons renovating the Panthéon. Shouldn’t the entrance inscription read: “Aux Grands hommes et femmes la patrie reconnaissante”, to great men and women, the grateful homeland?

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.