By ROBERT ZARETSKY
HOUSTON — In the politics of national identity, as with the politics of real estate, there are three cardinal rules: location, location, location. Few events better illustrate this truth than the current debate in France over whose earthly remains best belong in the basement of a hulking neo-Classical pile with a fissuring dome and bricked-up windows that looms over Paris — otherwise known as the Panthéon.
The Panthéon was not always what one wit called the “Académie Française of the dead.” ...
Were all these great men truly great? ...
And is the nation truly grateful? Apart from Voltaire and Rousseau, Hugo and Jean Moulin, most French people could more easily identify the starting five of the Miami Heat than any five of the Panthéon’s remaining residents.
The honorees are mostly soldiers and politicians, but it's not that bad a bench: Zola, Braille (I hope people can identify his contribution to human welfare), Lagrange, Condorcet, and Mirabeau. Out of all the French contributors to humanity (which are enormous), it's a pretty paltry list, though.
Lately, they've been adding blacks like Toussaint Louverture and mulattos like Dumas the Elder.
You don't have to be buried there, just have a plaque. And, yet, no Descartes, Pasteur, Pascal, or Monet. (The list of great Frenchmen is long: how about Fermat, Poincaire, and Galois just among mathematicians.)
But no questions hover over the “men” part: All but one of the 71 great men are, indeed, men. Across the English Channel at Westminster Abbey, which helped inspire the Panthéon, there are more women enshrined whose names begin with “A,” including Jane Austen, than for the entire alphabet at the Panthéon. The only woman is Marie Curie, inhumed with her husband, Pierre, in 1995. (There is also the wife of the chemist Marcellin Berthelot, who refused to be buried apart from her.)
The “pantheonization” of Marie Curie was one of the last official acts of President François Mitterrand. Twenty years later, President François Hollande plans to pick up where his political mentor left off. Before the end of the year, he will name two individuals to be enshrined in the Panthéon. He also declared it was time for the Panthéon to “welcome women.”
Over the last few months, an official government Web site inviting citizens to suggest candidates, as well as one run by Osez le féminisme (Dare to Be Feminist), have gathered hundreds of candidates. Two names, Olympe de Gouges and Germaine Tillion, have appeared the most frequently.
To choose one man and one woman to join the 71 “great men” — including one great woman — in the Panthéon would be a mockery of parity. Perhaps Mr. Hollande, who strikes many as too prudent and indecisive, will show he is capable of the same heroism and generosity as these two women and name them both?
Actually, I can think of a woman of more importance in the history of France than Olympe de Gouges or Germaine Tillion, a teenage girl who had the most important idea in French (and perhaps world) political history. In the midst of the 100 Years War, in which English armies roamed about the French countryside wreaking havoc in their kings' efforts to enforce their complicated genealogical claims to rule, Joan of Arc rejected these medieval notions of dynasticism for nationalism. She went to war for a central idea of the modern world that is the political basis of France's greatness: France should be ruled by the French.
So, why won't the Socialist government put up a plaque in the Pantheon in honor of the single most astonishing figure in French (and perhaps human) history?
Because the National Front identifies with Joan of Arc, and the Socialists have been trying to arrest the NF's female leader Marine Le Pen, who came in third in the last presidential election.