Entertainer, civil rights activist and spy: Josephine Baker will on Tuesday evening become the first black woman to be memorialised in the Pantheon in Paris — an honour only bestowed by the French president for national heroes.
President Emmanuel Macron, who is hoping to secure his second presidency in an election in less than five months, will lead the nationally televised ceremony, which will “retrace the different facets of [Josephine Baker’s] life as an artist, resistance fighter, activist and mother”. She will join the likes of Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Voltaire.
In the statement announcing the decision in August, the Elysée said Baker “embodies the French spirit” and “deserves the recognition of the homeland”.
Upon her family’s request, Baker’s remains will stay in Monaco where she was buried in 1975, while she will be remembered in a cenotaph with soil from the US, France and Monaco in the Pantheon. She will be only the sixth woman to be “pantheonised”.
Politicians, organisations and fans have for years campaigned to include Baker in the Pantheon, with a recent petition by essayist Laurent Kupferman reviving the debate.
But many also view the timing of her entry into the hall of French greats 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 in poverty in St Louis, Missouri, in 1906, was one of several 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 became famous first in France in the twenties. I just couldn’t stand America and I was one of the first coloured Americans to move to Paris.”
Her story of coming to France to escape the racism of the US, but also rising to fame in Paris while once performing in only a beaded necklace and a skirt of artificial bananas, makes Baker a controversial symbol among some despite her universal popularity.
A dancer and entertainer who was the first black woman to star in a major film production in 1927, Baker went on to campaign for civil rights with Martin Luther King and was decorated for spying for the French resistance movement where she smuggled hidden messages in her sheet music.
She renounced her American citizenship in 1937, bought a château in the south of France and adopted 12 children from different countries.
The support committee working on Baker’s pantheonisation, which includes her son Brian Bouillon-Baker among others, told AFP: “We pay tribute to her commitment to republican values,” recalling that she had said of France: “Here they take me for a person and they do not look at me as a colour.”
Additional reporting by Domitille Alain in Paris