French public to vote on Pantheon burial honour

Who do you think should join Voltaire and Victor Hugo among the ranks of the greatest French men and women? That’s the question authorities are asking the public for the first time, as they try to decide who to bury next in the prestigious Pantheon mausoleum in Paris.

French public to vote on Pantheon burial honour
The Pantheon, at Photo: David Monniaux

What French man or woman, above everyone else, deserves to be the next to be honoured by being laid to rest in the famous Pantheon monument, on the Montagne Saint-Genevieve in Paris?

Now for the first time ever, the public will have a say, it was announced this week.

Speaking to TF1 television, Philippe Belaval, president of the Centre for National Monuments, confirmed that an online poll will open on September 2nd, to determine which luminary will join the likes of Emile Zola, and Marie and Pierre Curie.

“Rather than limiting the debate to just institutional leaders, it seemed useful to me to open it wide, so that everyone can offer their opinion,” Belaval said.

The poll will be open for a month, before Belaval and other officials analyse the results, and report back to President François Hollande by September 30th.

Anyone interested in having their say on the next leading light to be enshrined at the 18th century mausoleum – roughly equivalent to the British tradition of burial at Westminster Abbey – will be asked two questions.

Firstly, “In your opinion, who deserves to be honoured next at the Pantheon, and why?”

Secondly, “In your opinion, what should be the primary quality of the next person honoured at the Pantheon: humanitarian engagement, political action, activism for liberty, scientific discoveries, sporting achievements,” and so on.

The exercise, however, may not be the intriguing and light-hearted affair Belaval is hoping for.

Feminist groups ‘Osez le feminisme’ and ‘La barbe’ gathered on Monday outside the Pantheon “to protest against the erasing of women from history.”

Out of the 78 people buried in the mausoleum, only two are women – Marie Curie, for her scientific discoveries, and Sophie Berthelot, whose remains were interred at the Pantheon after her husband Marcellin died in 1907.

Belaval didn’t address this gender imbalance, nor the concerns of feminist demonstrators, on Monday, saying only: “Internet users can propose [the names of] women.”

Entry into the Pantheon caused controversy in France in March, when Hollande was accused of populism for proposing the burial of French Resistance fighter and author Stéphane Hessel, who had died the previous month.

The most recent entry into the hallowed crypt of the Pantheon was Martinican poet and politician Aimé Cesaire, who was transferred there in 2011, three years after his death.

In 2002, 'Three Muskateers' author Alexandre Dumas was interred in the Pantheon, 130 years after his death.

Who’s your choice to be buried in the Panthéon next, and why? 

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Don’t ask Google, ask us: Why are the French always surrendering?

In this mini series, The Local answers common questions that comes up when you start typing questions with "France" or "the French" into the Google search engine.

A French Special Operation Forces trains local soldiers in Mali.
A French Special Operation Forces trains local soldiers in Mali. France's overall military record is not as bad as many believe. (Photo by Thomas COEX / AFP)

Why are the French . . . always surrendering?

“How do you confuse a French soldier? Give them a rifle and ask them to shoot it.”

One of the most enduring clichés about the French is that they are always surrendering. The long historical record of the French military suggests that this is a slightly unfair stereotype, but we will explore where its origins nonetheless.

That the French always surrender when the going gets tough is one of the most enduring stereotypes about the country

This sentiment was encapsulated perfectly in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons in which the French are described as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”. 

The consensus among historians is that this trope comes from the French capitulation to the Nazis in WWII. Within a matter of weeks, Hitler was able to capture Paris and force the French into submission. 

In 1940, during the Battle of France that preceded the French surrender, France had more men mobilised than at the start of WW1 in 1914. It also had one of the strongest naval fleets in the world, which could have feasibly evacuated the majority of the troops to Britain or North Africa. Instead, chaos reigned and most of the military hardware fell into the hands of the Nazis. 

In July 1940, after the surrender, Britain asked French admirals in North Africa to surrender their fleet to avoid it being taken by the Germans. When the French refused, the Brits blew up this fleet. 

The myth that France had been under-prepared for war was propagated by the leader of the collaborationist Vichy government, Marshall Philippe Pétain, and persists to this day.

In reality there were multiple reasons for the sudden French collapse, including the surprise German attack through the Ardennes. 

While there were pockets of resistance to the Nazis under occupation, a substantial proportion of the French population collaborated with the Germans. The Vichy government and French police forces actively took part in the Holocaust. 

The eventual outcome of the war means it is easy, but perhaps unfair, to look back at the past and regard French surrender to the Nazis as a cowardly decision, but France was far from the only country to fall to the Nazi war machine. 

Setting the record straight

Despite their reputation for surrender, a long view of history reveals a track record of grit and at times, victory for French military. 

The Eiffel tower stands in a park known as the Champs de Mars. This site is named after the Roman god of war and marks the spot where some believe the Parisi tribe, ancient settlers of Paris, made a stand against against the Roman army during the conquest of Gaul. History suggests that they were promptly massacred – but at least they tried. 

Fast forward nearly 1,000 years to the medieval period and France had become one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. The Normans, an ethnic mix of Scandinavian vikings and Western Franks, even went on to conquer Britain in 1066. 

Moving on to the 18th century under the reign of Louis XV and France was one of the world’s dominant powers, with vast territories extending into large parts of what are now the United States and Canada. France eventually ceded much of this land away but during the American war of independence, France was decisive in kicking Britain out of North America, sending more troops than Britain and the 13 colonies combined. 

The French military conquered huge swathes of the world in the 19th century, creating a colonial empire that stretched from Africa, to the Caribbean to Southeast Asia. 

During WW1, France couldn’t have emerged victorious without the support of Britain and the United States but was nonetheless instrumental in winning the war and suffered close to 2 million military and civilian casualties. 

Today, France spends a greater proportion of GDP on defence than most other NATO members, has the largest military force in the EU and the sixth largest armed forces in the world. It has been involved in military interventions in at least nine countries since 2001. 

France is progressively withdrawing its forces from Operation Barkhane, a counter-insurgency operation led by French forces in West Africa.