Joséphine Baker enters the French Pantheon of National Heroes – .

Joséphine Baker enters the French Pantheon of National Heroes – .

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

President Emmanuel Macron, who hopes to secure his second presidency in an election in less than five months, will lead the national televised ceremony, which “will retrace the different facets of [Josephine Baker’s] life of artist, resistance fighter, activist and mother ”. She will join Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Voltaire.

In the statement announcing the decision in August, the Elysee Palace said Baker “embodies the French spirit” and “deserves recognition from the homeland”.

At the request of her family, Baker’s remains will remain in Monaco where she was buried in 1975, while she will be remembered in a cenotaph with soil from the United States, France and Monaco in the Pantheon. . She will only be the sixth woman to be “pantheonized”.

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, seeking 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 was the first black woman to star in a major film production in 1927, Baker continued to campaign for civil rights with Martin Luther King and was decorated for spying on the French resistance movement where she did pass messages hidden in his music sheet.

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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