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FRENCH HISTORY

IN PICTURES: France honours Josephine Baker at the Pantheon

The Franco-American resistance hero, performing artist and civil rights activist, Josephine Baker, has received the highest posthumous honour possible in France, being inducted into the Panthéon.

Images of Josephine Baker are projected onto the Pantheon during a ceremony dedicated to the American-born French dancer and singer who fought in the French Resistance and later battled racism as a civil rights activist.
Images of Josephine Baker are projected onto the Pantheon during a ceremony dedicated to the American-born French dancer and singer who fought in the French Resistance and later battled racism as a civil rights activist. (Photo by Thibault Camus / POOL / AFP)

Josephine Baker has become just the sixth woman to be honoured in the secular temple to the “great men” of the French Republic, which sits on a hill in Paris’ Left Bank.

She is the first ‘entertainer’ to be immortalised in the monument where the bodies of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Marie Curie also lie. 

During Tuesday’s ceremony a coffin containing handfuls of earth from four places where she lived – the US city of St. Louis where she was born; Paris; the Chateau de Milandes where she lived in southwest France; and Monaco where she is buried – was placed in the tomb reserved for her in the Pantheon’s crypt.

The coffin was carried into the building by members of the French air force, commemorating her role in the French Resistance during World War II.

As the coffin was borne along a street covered in red carpet to the strains of Baker‘s hit song “J’ai deux amours” (“I have two loves” – referring to “My country and Paris”) images of her life were projected onto the Pantheon’s neo-classical facade.

French soldiers carry a coffin filed with soil from important places from Baker’s life, during a ceremony dedicated to the American-born French dancer and singer who fought in the French Resistance. (Photo by Thomas COEX / POOL / AFP)
 
Paying tribute to her in a speech Macron said Baker “did not defend one skin colour” but “fought for the liberty of all”. Addressing his remarks to “dear Josephine”, he said: “You are entering this Pantheon because although you were born American there is no-one more French than you.”
 
The honour bestowed by Macron on the world’s first black female superstar caps years of campaigning by her family and admirers for her place in French history to be recognised.
 
France’s President Emmanuel Macron delivered in tribute to Baker. (Photo by SARAH MEYSSONNIER / POOL / AFP)

Baker’s name will also be added to the name of the Gaite metro station next to the Bobino theatre in southern Paris, where she last appeared on stage a few days before her death in 1975.

Born Freda Josephine McDonald into extreme poverty in Missouri in 1906, Baker left school at 13 and managed to get herself a place in one of the first all-black musicals on Broadway in 1921.

Like many black American artists at the time, Baker moved to France to escape racial segregation back home.

Brian Bouillon-Baker, one of the Josephine Baker’s adopted sons, attended the ceremony. (Photo by SARAH MEYSSONNIER / POOL / AFP)

The woman nicknamed the “Black Venus” took Paris by storm with her exuberant dance performances, which captured the energy of the Jazz Age.

One of the defining moments of her career came when she danced the Charleston at the Folies Bergere cabaret hall wearing only a string of pearls and a skirt made of rubber bananas, in a sensational send-up of colonial fantasies about black women.

The performance marked the start of a long love affair between France and the free-spirited style icon, who took French nationality in 1937.

At the outbreak of World War II, she joined the Resistance against Nazi Germany, becoming a lieutenant in the French air force’s female auxiliary corps.

She also became a spy for France’s wartime leader-in-exile General Charles de Gaulle, obtaining information on Italian leader Benito Mussolini and sending reports to London hidden in her music sheets in invisible ink.

Members of the public also gathered to pay tribute. (Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

“France made me who I am,” she said later. “Parisians gave me everything… I am prepared to give them my life.”

She also waged a fight against discrimination, adopting 12 children from different ethnic backgrounds to form a “rainbow” family at her chateau in the Dordogne.

She died on April 12th, 1975, aged 68, from a brain haemorrhage, days after a final smash-hit cabaret show in Paris celebrating her half-century on the stage.

She is the second woman to be entered by Macron into the Pantheon, after former minister Simone Veil, who survived the Holocaust to fight for abortion rights and European unity.

In a sign of the universal affection in which Baker is still held in France, there was no public criticism of the decision to honour her, including from far-right commentators that are generally scathing of anti-racism gestures.

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FRENCH HISTORY

French history myths: The Bastille was stormed to free hundreds of political prisoners

The storming of the Bastille has become the iconic moment that symbolises the French revolution - but how did the event actually play out?

French history myths: The Bastille was stormed to free hundreds of political prisoners

Myth: The storming of the Bastille was done to free the hundreds of political prisoners held captive there

This myth is as old as the French revolution itself and the subject of numerous pieces of art.

The story goes that huge Parisian crowds came together at the Bastille prison on July 14th in 1789,  well armed and prepared to fight their way past the guards and military to free the hundreds of prisoners wrongfully convicted by the crown.

It’s true that the Bastille was stormed by a crowd, but at the time it was only housing seven prisoners, and none of them were known to have been rebelled against the crown in any notable way. According to records, the seven prisoners in the Bastille at the time were four counterfeiters, two ‘madmen’ and a nobleman accused of sexual perversion.

It is true that during previous centuries the giant prison was used to lock up those accused by the monarchy of sedition.

In the 17th century, King Louis XIV imprisoned over 2,320 people in the Bastille prison over the course of his reign, many of whom were protestants. 

The prison had also been known for incarcerating seditious writers, and eventually it built up a very reputation amongst the French public in the 18th century. By the mid-1700s, the prison was less frequently used, and during the reign of Louis XVI, only 306 people were imprisoned in the building. 

However, the structure still represented a symbol of the monarchy in the middle of the capital city, and once it was stormed, it helped demonstrate to the King – and the rest of the world – the seriousness of the revolutionaries’ demands.

Another reason the storming of the Bastille was a key victory for revolutionaries was what was being stored there: gunpowder. The Parisians succeeded in seizing both gunpowder they needed for their weapons, as well as the cannons housed there.

Ultimately, storming the Bastille marked a symbolic victory and, by many historians’ accounts, a clear start to the Revolution – which is why France’s Fête nationale is celebrated on July 14th.

In the years following, several authors, such as Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickens, immortalised the Bastille prison as a place of torture for political dissidents and every day people alike. 

Now, the Place de la Bastille stands on most the former location of the famed prison. 

This article is part of our August series on popular myths and misconceptions about French history.

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