Joséphine Baker makes history once again in Paris
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Some foreign visitors may have no idea who she was, but there is already a Joséphine Baker Square and Joséphine Baker Swimming Pool in Paris, and Joséphine Baker Streets in cities across France. For Ernest Hemingway, she was “the most sensational woman anyone has ever seen. Or never will be ”. Charles de Gaulle attended his first concert in the French capital after the city was liberated from the Nazis.
Today, the US-born showgirl singer turned resistance agent and civil rights activist, who died in 1975, received the ultimate French state honor: President Emmanuel Macron announced this week that she would be commemorated at the Pantheon in Paris alongside giants such as Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas and Marie Curie. She will become the first black woman to be like this “Pantheonized”.
Eight months before the next presidential election, Macron’s announcement that a woman who “embodied the spirit of France” and “was engaged in all the fights that unite citizens of goodwill in France and around the world” has been hailed and viewed as a politically savvy move that ticks the right boxes of race and gender. His predecessor, the socialist François Hollande, refused the same petition to honor a woman celebrated by the French left.
Baker’s rise to the Pantheon is meant to heal the wounds of a nation divided within itself – especially over race, immigration, and feminism – and which has an at times awkward relationship with its former ally the United States. : “I have two loves … My country and Paris»(I have two loves, my country and Paris) is his most famous song.
France, which welcomed Baker with open arms from a segregationist America in the 1920s, also wants to reaffirm its role as a “land of asylum”, this time for Afghans fleeing the Taliban.
Even Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Anti-Immigration Rally, felt compelled to greet the entry into the Pantheon of “a great artist, inspired by the love of France and the freedom for which she sits. ‘is beaten “. Only occasional grunts were heard from opponents of Macron on the left. Priscillia Ludosky, an activist who helped launch the yellow vests The protests of 2018 questioned whether Macron had chosen to make this statement on racial inclusion with Baker because it was the one that involved “the least commitment” on the part of the government.
Roland Lescure, MP for Macron’s party that represents overseas voters, stressed the importance of the Pantheon as a non-religious temple of France where people could commune with the great minds of the past. “We are secular, but we have rituals,” he said, adding that Baker’s arrival on November 30 (his physical remains will remain in Monaco) was “a very good symbol of inclusion, of unity. and openness to the world “.
Baker, born into poverty in St. Louis, Missouri in 1906 and married twice at the age of 15, straddles entertainment and politics and had a romantic life story from rags to glamor: a dancer and singer of vaudeville who continued to campaign for civil rights in the United States with Martin Luther King and was decorated by her adopted country for her spy work for the French resistance during the war.
His big break was in The Negro Review in Paris in 1925, and while playing racist tropes of the time – in Wild Dance she wore little more than a cord around her waist strung with artificial bananas – she came to love Paris and France, married two reputedly bisexual Frenchmen and bought a chateau in the Dordogne, adopting 12 children from different countries.
“Yes, she was dancing with bananas but she didn’t care – thanks to that she came out of anonymity and found herself in the resistance,” said Lova Rinel, vice-president of the Representative Council of Black Associations in France. “So in France it started badly but it ended well.”
Rinel, “very happy and very proud” to have Baker in the Pantheon, said she embodied the best of democracy and the struggle for civil rights in the United States and France. “Democracy is about diversity, and honoring Josephine Baker in the Pantheon is really about that idea.”
Or, as Brian Bouillon-Baker, one of his adopted sons, told the Parisian: “She loved France, and France loved her in return.