Why the French government said no.

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Last week, France’s most famous playwright’s birthday celebration fell a bit flat when he was denied the only stage he had left to conquer. It was not just any birthday: few of us are remembered, let alone celebrated, at the age of 400 years.andmausoleum and monument of the -century in Paris where the honor of the burial is strictly reserved for the nation big men (and, more recently, tall women).

But Molière is not just any playwright, and his failure to be inducted into the Pantheon is not just any miscellaneous. During the 17and century, Paris-born and raised Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, who went by the stage name Molière, rolled out an incredibly long series of incredibly scathing (and often heartbreaking) plays, ranging from Tartuffe or the Imposter and The Misanthrope at The Miser and The bourgeois gentleman. His works have been so widely translated and performed that, just as English is known as the “language of Shakespeare”, French is called “the language of Molière”. (So ​​much so that a few years ago, several regional governments in France imposed French as the main language of communication on all public worksites. The law, challenged by the European Union and canceled by the central government, was nicknamed “the Molière clause.”)

What better CV to be admitted to the Pantheon? At least that was the conviction of Francis Huster, a well-known French theater, film and television actor and director who has long campaigned – in interviews, articles and books – for the pantheonization of Molière. In 2019, Huster launched a petition to advocate for the transfer of Molière’s remains from the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris to the Panthéon. For the world, Huster announced, Molière forged the image he still has of France, namely the nation’s “boldness and love of truth”. Whether the world has, in fact, this image of France remains uncertain. What was as clear as the French, however, was the government’s response: Molière would not be playing in the Pantheon, at least anytime soon.

Why was Molière refused entry? The reason, according to President Emmanuel Macron’s cultural adviser, Stéphane Bern, was simple: the Pantheon, he said, was reserved for Republicans. “Opening the Pantheon to the father of the French language,” Bern observed, “is a great idea.” But nice is not enough. The Pantheon, Berne noted, seeming to state the obvious, honors “only those who have defended the republic. In other words, great men and women who come after the Revolution.

It is a strange assertion. The Pantheon was indeed a creation of the French Revolution. The building, commissioned by King Louis XV as a church honoring the patron saint of Paris, opened just as King Louis XVI’s grandson lost his throne in 1792. Two years later, after Louis had also lost their minds during the revolution, the representatives of the nascent republic regained possession of the building, renamed it Pantheon and once again dedicated it to the worship of the nation.

It marked the start of a century-long fight between reactionaries and Republicans over ownership of this prime real estate. Parisians followed the fortunes of both sides by checking the status of the famous phrase above the entrance: “Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissance” (“To great men, a grateful homeland”). It was suppressed in 1806 under Napoleon Bonaparte, restored a few decades later by King Louis-Philippe, and a few decades later was suppressed again by another Napoleon who had declared himself emperor. It was not until 1885 that the Third Republic sealed the deal by organizing Victor Hugo’s burial and placing his massive remains in the building’s crypt.

But despite its historic status as a symbol of the showdown between the two paradigms, the Pantheon does not have, unlike our American pantheons of baseball or rock ‘n’ roll, an admission criterion such as Bern pointed out. when explaining the history of Molière exclusion. Indeed, apart from being “tall”, or for that matter being a “man” – it is only 25 years since the first woman, Marie Curie, was welcomed – there are no rules for admission to the Pantheon. The French have no say either. From the end of the 19and mid 20and century, the power of “pantheonization” resided in the National Assembly. After 1958 and the advent of the Gaullist Fifth Republic, however, the process shifted to the president. In 1964, when Resistance hero Jean Moulin was buried in the Panthéon, it was as much Charles de Gaulle, his towering figure officiating silently at the ceremony, as Moulin.

More than half a century later, pantheonization remains, literally, a spectacular self-publicity tool for the French head of state. The vision of a president addressing a coffin, draped in the French tricolor, placed by an honor guard outside the entrance, followed by the chanting of “La Marseillaise”, cannot fail to impress. In 2018, Macron was the impresario of the pantheonization of the fearsome Simone Veil, the government minister who had survived Auschwitz as a child and had fought for the legalization of abortion and the rapprochement between France and the world. ‘European Union.

Three years later, Macron has further reinforced his liberal credentials by stepping onto the Pantheon stage again. Indeed, in this case, no word is more appropriate than “step”. Although Josephine Baker’s name was first presented in 2013 as a candidate for the honor, it was Macron, not his socialist predecessor Francois Hollande, who welcomed the American-born and naturalized artist. French at the Panthéon last November. In a speech that closed a festive ceremony, a boiling Macron declared: “Josephine Baker, you enter the Pantheon because if you were born American, basically there was no more French than you.

For observers who have not grasped the political message of this event, one of Macron’s ministers, Elisabeth Moreno, clarified it. “The president made this strong appeal to a nation tempted to withdraw into itself. More than any other, Baker embodies a pluralist France, a nation attached to freedom and which is not afraid of the mixing of races or the embrace of the other.

Macron’s timing for this show at the Pantheon was as deliberate as that chosen for Baker’s shows at the Folies Bergère. On the same day last fall, Éric Zemmour — the far-right pundit whose racist and nativist slurs won him a following in France (as well as several court appearances) — announced he would be taking part in the presidential election this spring. In a breathtaking video, he rattled off the names of these illustrious characters from the past who brought glory to the nation: Hugo, Racine, La Fontaine, Voltaire, Chateaubriand, Descartes, Pascal and, yes, Molière.

It didn’t take a Descartes to understand that the cards were almost entirely stacked with white males. Nor would it take a Molière to make fun of the video. Or, indeed, to make us laugh at the sudden stampede of other figures from the French right who began falling on top of each other in their pleas for Molière to be next in line for the Pantheon. The conservative newspaper Le Figaro published several such pleas, including that of Valérie Pécresse, the presidential candidate of the right-wing Republicans, who pointedly noted that Molière was skewering “the oppression of women and religious bigotry” – subjects no less relevant to the 21st-century France than 17and-century France.

When the government rejected the petitions, the leader of the far-right Les Républicains faction, Éric Ciotti, tweeted his outrage, accusing Macron of seeking to “deconstruct the history of France by preventing Molière from entering the Pantheon”. while historian Éric Anceau, whose political sympathies lie with the nationalist right, tweeted that “the political polemic polluting this anniversary is indecent and unworthy”.

Of course, their real objective, like that of Pécresse, is the heated debate on national identity in France. In his choice of words, Pécresse targeted the growing influence of political Islamism in the country’s underserved and overcrowded suburbs. Yet few French Muslims would feel safe from his attack, especially when Pécresse vowed a few days later to “take the Kärcher [a German brand of power washer] get out of the basement and clean up these neighborhoods and restore order” – an infamous twist of phrase first used by his mentor, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, when he ran for office in 2007.

Last week, Kärcher issued a press release, demanding that French politicians “immediately cease any use of the company name that misrepresents our brand and our values”. If only the company had added a few lines of Molière Tartuffe, the last word on hypocrisy now, as it was then:

Man is a strangely shaped creature

Who is rarely content to follow Nature

But recklessly pursues his inclination

Beyond the narrow limits of moderation.

These words and his works will always remain with us, too powerful to ever need the Hall of Fame, and too truthful to ever be erased by a pressure washer.

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