Suspiciously, Emmanuel Macron is revitalising the memory of a Black woman at the same time as he is being accused of appeasing racists.
There are all kinds of reasons why Josephine Baker, the American-born showgirl who shot to fame because of her risque cabaret performances during the Jazz Age, would have hated ending up in an establishment mausoleum specifically designed for portentous old Frenchmen.
This may well be why French President Emmanuel Macron’s much vaunted claim that Baker was “inducted” into the Pantheon in Paris on November 30 is not as straightforward as billed.
In fact, Baker’s last known remains are still in a cemetery in Monaco. Her second coffin in the Pantheon solely contains soil from the Mediterranean principality, along with earth from places that figured prominently in her life, such as St Louis, Missouri, where Baker was born in 1906.
The gloomy Pantheon – which is based on a Roman temple – is meant to be the monument where “Heroes of the Nation” are actually interned in ornate burial chambers. There are less than 100, and they include Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Most were pantheonises (it’s such an exclusive honour, that there is a verb for it) for their contributions to human knowledge.
In contrast, La Baker, as she was variously referred to, is still best known for dancing the Charleston in a G-string with bananas hanging off it and revelling in other nicknames such as the Black Pearl and Creole Goddess. It was the exuberance of the Roaring Twenties that defined Baker, and not later efforts in support of the French Resistance and civil rights movements.
Just a brief glimpse of the many images of Baker in her heyday (Siren of the Tropics, her first movie, was released in 1927) reveals an artist who was decades ahead of her time. She never made any secret of her contempt for stuffy powerbrokers, and especially conniving politicians.
Macron, an increasingly reactionary head of state desperate to fight off allegations that he is becoming far too right-wing, is unlikely to have impressed her. This is especially so as he is revitalising the memory of a Black woman when he is being accused of appeasing racists.
Officiating at a Baker induction just four months before the next presidential elections was certainly a way of mitigating more controversial decisions. These include trying to attract far-right voters who currently support Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National (National Rally), or the even more extreme Eric Zemmour, whose ferocious new movement is called Reconquete (Reconquest). Both have a chance of being Macron’s main opponent when he bids for a second term in April.
Baker came from a slave trade background, and started life sleeping rough on the streets of St Louis. Her first marriage of four came at the age of 13 before Vaudeville became her salvation. She exported her music hall talent to Paris, where she was granted French citizenship in 1937, and was feted by other international stars, ranging from Bob Hope to Pablo Picasso.
In this sense, Baker’s story is one of an immigrant given exceptional privileges because of her membership of a showbiz elite. Her celebrity story contrasts sharply with those of millions of other dark-skinned newcomers whose experiences in France have been tainted by abject prejudice. Her “induction” into the Pantheon thus smacks of tokenism in a notoriously racist country.
Baker was certainly one of the few black people to be given military honours for the spying she did for the Allies during the Second World War. Even the numerous coloured troops who liberated Paris in 1944 were not allowed to take part in the victory parade.
James Baldwin, the searingly honest black American writer, arrived in Paris a few years later and reported on immigrants he referred to as les miserables being “treated like dirt”.
Unemployed masses from Algeria, then still the jewel in France’s Imperial crown, were particularly badly treated, and Baldwin was filmed saying: “The Algerian in France is the ni**er in America”.
As a Black man who – in line with all the racist cliches – was at one stage imprisoned by Paris police on trumped up charges of theft, Baldwin relied on Algerian friends for protection.
Those who are obviously from African and North African backgrounds are still treated abominably in France. Macron ministers are among the many who now regularly use words such as ensauvagement – turning savage – to describe those they still consider to be largely responsible for street crime.
Who can forget Macron’s claim that wanton reproduction among black African women – those, like Baker, who want to be the mother of very large families –often made foreign aid pointless. “Seven or eight children per woman,” generated by “civilisational” problems were Macron’s exact words at a G20 summit in Hamburg, soon after his election in 2017.
It is particularly telling that Macron responded positively to a petition to memorialise Baker in the Pantheon, while remaining lukewarm over those campaigning for the same to be granted to the lawyer and women’s rights advocate Gisele Halimi, who came from a Tunisian Muslim background and died a year ago.
Halimi was a far more likely candidate for the honour, yet the work she did for Algerian nationalists during their victorious war of independence against France, which ended in 1962, is said to have dissuaded Macron.
Some have suggested that the explanation for the Baker recognition is that she did not openly attack French colonialism, or indeed French racism, and instead focused her antagonism on America.
The secular principle at the very heart of the French Republican dream – one that is embodied in the godless Pantheon – in fact sits uneasily with Baker’s strongly multicultural view of life, and indeed her devout Catholicism. She adopted twelve children, deliberately selecting each from a variety of backgrounds, so as to create a “Rainbow Tribe,” as she called it.
The myth that Baker was a much-loved war hero who personified the French Dream is also punctured by the fact that she ended up chased by bailiffs. Forced to sell her Chateau in the Dordogne because of bankruptcy, she was eventually bailed out by the fabulously wealthy Princess Grace of Monaco, the former Hollywood star, Grace Kelly.
Royalty in a Christian principality was there for Josephine Baker and her Rainbow Tribe at the very end, and that is why her intended final resting place after her death in 1975, aged 68, was in sunny Monte Carlo. That should be remembered after French Republicans disingenuously sanctified her as their own quasi-saint, and etched the Baker name in the darkness of a secular Paris temple.
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