France’s highest honour: Five things to know about the Paris Panthéon

A popular tourist attraction and the highest honour available in France - here's what you need to know about the Panthéon building in Paris.

France's highest honour: Five things to know about the Paris Panthéon
Photo: Christian Hartmann/AFP

Built in a neo-classical style, the Panthéon was originally intended to be a church. Construction began in 1758 after it was commissioned by Louis XV and the design was intended to rival St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Construction took around 40 years and by the time it was finished, the political landscape in France had changed somewhat. The French Revolution began while building work was ongoing and by the time the Panthéon was finished in 1790 Louis XV’s successor Louis XVI was in deep trouble. He would be sent to the guillotine in 1793.

The fate of the new building was surprisingly high up the priority list of the revolutionaries and one of the several new fledging citizen assemblies took a vote on the Panthéon on 1791 and decided to make it a kind of secular church – a mausoleum for the people judged to be France’s most distinguished citizens.

Governments and monarchies have risen and fallen since then, but the Panthéon has remained the place where France’s most valued sons (and a significantly fewer number of daughters) have been laid to rest.

Here’s a few things to know about it:
1. It can be a verb
The building itself is obviously a noun – le Panthéon – but you will also heard panthéoniser used as a verb. In this context is means that a person will be given the honour of being interred inside the building.


This was evident in news headlines when president Emmanuel Macron announced that US cabaret dancer Josephine Baker would be inducted into the Panthéon.   

2. It’s open to foreigners

While you do need to be a citizen of France to be considered for panthéoniser, you don’t need to have been born a citizen. Josephine Baker was born and brought up in the USA before moving to France, marrying a Frenchman and taking French citizenship. Also inside the Panthéon is Nobel prize winner Marie Curie, who was born in Poland and only became French later.

So being an immigrant is no bar, as long as you achieve something truly outstanding while you are in France.

3. But you can’t book a place in there

Entry to the Panthéon is decided by the country’s ruler, which these days is the president but Napoleon inducted around 40 people during his reign. New members have often been inducted after a public campaign or petition, but the final decision lies with the president of the day.

Some people are buried straight away within the Panthéon, while others have their remains moved there later if their reputation has grown after their death. Josephine Baker died in 1975 and was buried in Monaco, where she was living at the time, but in November 2021 she will be inducted into the Panthéon.

In the case of moving a body, the family’s permission is sought first. If they are not happy with the idea, sometimes soil from a person’s grave is moved to the Panthéon instead while the building also contains several urns that house the hearts of a preferred citizen.

The criteria is simply to be a distinguished French citizen, and occupants include writers, artists, scientists, politicians and campaigners.

The ceremony for the induction of World War I fighter  and writer Maurice Genevoix in 2020. Photo by Francois Mori / POOL / AFP

4. It helps to be male (or married to someone amazing)

Of the 80 people currently interred there, 75 are male. Josephine Baker will become the sixth woman and the first black woman.

The first woman to be interred there on her own merit was Marie Curie in 1993, but the first woman to be inducted was Sophie Berthelot. She was married to the distinguished chemist turned politician Marcellin Berthelot, who refused to be buried apart from his wife.   

The other women there are the politician, abortion campaigner and Holocaust survivor Simone Veil and the Resistance fighters Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz. Simone Veil’s husband is also buried alongside her.

5. It’s open to visitors

If you’re worried that you’re not fabulous enough to secure a permanent resting spot there, you can always go and visit. The building is beautiful and the permanent exhibition gives a lot of details about the many fascinating characters who are buried there.

Entry is free for children and €11.50 for adults. Due to current health rules, visits must be booked in advance and a health passport will be required to enter. Book here.

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OPINION: The Arc de Triomphe roundabout is an emblem of Paris, so don’t destroy it

The famous Arc de Triomphe roundabout is "a symbol of Parisian exceptionalism, a microcosm of France, an automotive wonder of the world", says John Lichfield. So why does the mayor want to destroy it?

OPINION: The Arc de Triomphe roundabout is an emblem of Paris, so don't destroy it

Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, does not lack courage.

Fresh from her 1.7 percent score in the presidential election, she plans to destroy a Parisian icon: the 12-lane traffic jacuzzi which surrounds the Arc de Triomphe.

Mayor Hidalgo is already under fire for her other assaults on the Parisian streetscape. Personally, I have no problem with the proliferation of cycle lanes. I do object to the bizarre, new forms of street furniture which have replaced some traditional benches and street-lights.

But now the mayor has finally gone too far. The traffic free-for-all at the Etoile at the top of the Champs Elysées is as emblematic of Paris as the Eiffel Tower or the triumphal arch which stands in the centre of this maman et papa of all roundabouts.

Ms Hidalgo plans to reduce the space for traffic by one third, reducing the number of theoretical lanes from 12 to eight. The work is to begin almost immediately as part of a bigger plans to make the Champs Elysées smarter and greener before the Paris Olympics in 2024.

READ ALSO: How Paris plans to transform the Champs-Elysées

That is all very well but she is destroying a symbol of Parisian exceptionalism, a microcosm of France, an automotive wonder of the world. 

How on earth do you drive around a twelve-lane roundabout where there seem to be no rules?

The answer is that there are very strict rules and that just enough people obey them to allow the rest to do as they please.  The Etoile is a mini-France: a blend of brute individualism with the Republican values of mutual respect and solidarity.

In the last 24 years I must have driven around the Etoile at least 5,000 times. Each time I approach, I feel my knuckles clench on the steering wheel, as if I were in a bomber approaching its target zone. I have never had an accident. I have only once seen an accident.

In theory, priority is always from the right. Some people, like me, charge into the centre, trusting that the other traffic will give way as it is supposed to. I then try to twist and turn my way out.

Others rush blindly in and then rush blindly out again.

A few, like my ex-neighbour Bénedicte, wander around the outside, blocking all the exit and entrance lanes in turn. Challenged on her anti-social technique, she said: “Rules? You have to be an imbecile to obey the rules.”

Reducing the Etoile to eight lanes, when there are 12 avenues radiating from it, sounds to me like a blue-print for disaster. The strange blend of rules and rule-breaking, conventions and moods which govern the place will be catastrophically disturbed.

An aerial view taken taken on July 11, 2019 shows the Arch of Triumph (Arc de Triomphe) in Paris. (Photo by Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP)

The Etoile has some claim to be the world’s first roundabout (other candidates exist).  Until 1907, the traffic, mostly horse-drawn was allowed to go around in any direction that it fancied. That must have been fun.

Eugène Hénard, the architect for the City of Paris, ordered that traffic should go around anti-clockwise and make way for vehicles entering from the right.  And so it has been ever since.

Until the 1970s, other roundabouts – “rond-points” or “carrefour giratoires” (circular cross-roads) – were rare in France. Half a century ago, it was decided that too many people were killing themselves on ordinary cross-roads because they ignored or got confused by the rule awarding priority to the right.

Since then France has undertaken a monumental programme of roundabout building. The country now has at least  30,000 roundabouts and some people insist 40,000. Even accepting the lower figure, France is reckoned to have half of all the roundabouts in the world (three times as many as the UK).

 Another 500 roundabouts are built in France each year. Every small town wants at least one. They have lyrical names like Rond Point des Lilas. They are sometimes decorated with sculptures. They often have flower-beds. During the Gilets Jaunes movement  in 2018 and 2019, they became the multiple epicentre of social rebellion.

But these are not charge-on and hope-for-the-best  roundabouts like the Etoile. You have tamely to give way to the traffic already on the rond-point. They are, I fear,  polite and predictable and unFrench. They are almost British. (It was in fact Britain which invented that kind of roundabout in the 1920s.)

I would beg Anne Hidalgo to reconsider her decision to truncate the Etoile. She has charged into this decision without giving a thought to the priority that should be accorded to French or Parisian history and tradition. She might as well have decided to remove the top storey from the Eiffel Tower.

An eight-lane Etoile would no-longer be a shining star of French exceptionalism. It would be a dwarf star, even a black hole.