A petition circulating on the internet is pushing for American-born French dancer Joséphine Baker to be buried in the Panthéon, an honour reserved for France’s national heroes. The move would recognise the courage of a renowned artist who was also a feminist, actively resisted Nazi Germany during World War II, and who fought against racism and antisemitism.
The Osez Joséphine (Dare with Joséphine) petition was started by writer Laurent Kupferman on May 8, which is celebrated as Victory in Europe Day. Already signed by more than 30,000 people including high-profile personalities, the nascent movement is expected to reach a new high on June 3 – Joséphine Baker’s birthday.
“Some new signatories will be unveiled and then we will send the petition to the French presidency,” said Kupferman. Only the French president can decide to induct someone into the Panthéon.
“Inducting Baker into the Panthéon would be a powerful symbol of national unity, of emancipation and of France’s universalism,” according to Kupferman.
War messages hidden in her dress
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Joséphine Baker rose to international stardom in the 1930s – especially in France, where she settled in 1925 and soon dominated the country’s cabarets with her big smile, sense of humour and wispy clothing.
Baker also became a French citizen and patriot who was dedicated to the country’s resistance against the Nazi occupation during World War II. After her 1937 marriage to Jean Lion (born Levy), a Jewish industrial mogul, she profited from her celebrity: she would hide secret messages in her clothes from the customs officials who were too busy asking for autographs. Baker would also crash embassy parties to collect intelligence on the positions of German troops.
She regularly shared her support by writing to her 4,000 wartime “godsons” in letters and donated the proceeds from all of her concerts to the French Army. Even the Chateau des Milandes, where she lived, became a resistance hotspot.
Only five women have been inducted to the Panthéon out of the 80 people honoured there. Baker would join the ranks of Simone Veil, Sophie Berthelot and Marie Curie.
But Baker “should not be inducted only because she was a woman or because she was Black”, Kupferman said. “She should be inducted because of the acts of courage she performed for the country.”
The idea of Baker taking her place among France’s greats is not new. On December 16, 2013, writer Régis Debray pushed for it in a Le Monde op-ed piece.
“The proposition had been sent to [then president] François Hollande, but he did nothing,” says Brian Bouillon Baker, one of the artist’s adopted sons, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
Dubbed “the Frenchest of all Americans”, Baker’s descendants say public interest and support for her induction has only been growing. “Many officials have been increasingly asking us (Baker’s children) to take part in inaugurating schools, streets, squares and dancehalls, all in her honour. International media is asking for interviews. There are even three movies currently being shot, including a biopic and a documentary, both with big budgets. We didn’t have all that admiration for her 30 years ago,” Bouillon Baker said.
According to Kupferman, this growing public interest is due, in part, to the fact that Baker’s activism is still relevant today. “She was a free woman and an activist, a feminist, a resistance fighter, and an activist against racism and antisemitism. In a world turned in on itself, where tribalism and racism are exacerbated, her ideals resonate in people’s hearts,” the author explained.
The singer was, first and foremost, an outspoken antiracism activist after having to cope with the American segregation system. In 1963 she took part in the March on Washington alongside Martin Luther King. Dressed in her French wartime uniform, medals included, she was the only Black woman to give a speech during what became the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
While in France she became an advocate at LICA, which would later become the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism in 1979.
‘The Rainbow Tribe’
Well known in France for her song “J’ai deux amours” (“I have two loves”), the singer actually had many more: during her lifetime she adopted 12 children from different origins and religions, applying her humanitarian ideals to her own family, which she often referred to as “The Rainbow Tribe”.
“Our family was not simply a utopia. Our mother wanted us to be different and united. And on that she absolutely succeeded, because to this day, we are just as tied to each other,” said Bouillon Baker, who is now 64.
Although all of her children support the idea of her being granted Panthéon honours, they also agree on something else: they refuse to allow her mortal remains to leave the family’s burial site in the small Mediterranean principality of Monaco. “Our mother is resting next to our father and one of their sons, also close to [Princess] Grace of Monaco, whom she loved dearly and who helped her when she was ruined at the end of her life. So it is out of the question to move her,” her son said firmly.
But this caveat would not be disqualifying: the transfer of one’s remains is not mandatory to enter the Panthéon. Instead, the Baker family has suggested a simple cenotaph in her memory.
But what would Joséphine Baker herself have thought of such an honour? According to Bouillon Baker, she would have been torn.
“She would have been really proud of such an honour from France, just like she was really proud of wearing her military awards (including a Knight of the Legion of Honour medal, a Croix de Guerre from World War II, a Resistance Medal and a Commemorative Medal for voluntary services during the war). But she would also be somewhat embarrassed by such an honour: She was not an intellectual nor a political leader, but simply a woman with common sense,” he said.
Although many high-profile personalities support the idea of inducting her into the Panthéon, she also has her critics. Baker performed one dance number with a banana belt around her waist, prompting some to denounce her for taking part in a caricature of racist tropes.
“To say she fuels racism is absurd; we must not look at this scene from the past with present-day glasses. It is nothing but a wild Charleston, not a tribal dance,” insisted Laurent Kupferman.
Bouillon Baker added: “These accusations are marginal; wherever we talk about her, it is with kindness.”
But will French President Emmanuel Macron be charmed enough by Joséphine Baker’s legacy to allow her to take her place inside a monument dedicated to France’s “greats”?
The president “is aware of Joséphine’s history, which he referred to during his speech for the 150th anniversary of the Republic … at the Panthéon”, Bouillon Baker noted.
“Either way, even if she doesn’t make it, we have already received so many expressions of sympathy, tributes and recognition for our mother, that this in itself is already a victory.”