Josephine Baker, music hall star and civil rights activist, enters Panthéon

French-American war hero is first Black woman inducted into Paris mausoleum for revered figures

Josephine Baker, the French-American civil rights activist, music hall superstar and second world war resistance hero, has become the first Black woman to enter France’s Panthéon mausoleum of revered historical figures – taking the nation’s highest honour at a moment when tensions over national identity and immigration are dominating the run-up to next year’s presidential race.

The elaborate ceremony on Tuesday – presided over by the French president, Emmanuel Macron – focused on Baker’s legacy as a resistance fighter, activist and anti-fascist who fled the racial segregation of the 1920s US for the Paris cabaret stage, and who fought for inclusion and against hatred.

Members of the French air force carried a coffin containing handfuls of soil from four places where Baker lived: the US city of St Louis where she was born; Paris, where her music hall performances subverted racial and sexual stereotypes and made her the highest-paid performer of her time; the Château des Milandes, where she lived, in south-west France; and Monaco, her final home. The coffin was placed in a tomb reserved for her in the Panthéon’s crypt. Her family has requested that her body remain buried in Monaco, where she died aged 68 in 1975.

Projections outside the hallowed Parisian monument recalled scenes from Baker’s life, which the Élysée Palace called “incredible”, describing her as an exceptional figure who embodied the French spirit. Macron’s office said this was recognition that Baker’s “whole life was dedicated to the twin quest for liberty and justice”.

The Panthéon mausoleum for revered historical figures in Paris.
The Panthéon mausoleum for revered historical figures in Paris. Photograph: Siegfried Modola/Getty Images

In a speech, Macron said: “She was on the right side of history every time – she made the right choices, always distinguishing light from obscurity.” He detailed the racist violence of her childhood in Missouri, when as a young child she had to serve rich white families, and was brutally mistreated, in order to provide food for her brothers and sisters. He hailed the comic genius of her Paris cabaret performances that “ridiculed colonial prejudices”.

He said during the second world war she had served France “without seeking glory” and that as a civil rights activist “she defended equality for all above individual identity”. Though born American, Macron said, “no one was more French” than Josephine Baker.

Baker was born in Missouri in 1906, left school at 13 and as a child had witnessed terrifying riots and violence against Black people that resulted in thousands being displaced. She later said her birth city “had a terrible effect on me”. Like other Black American artists arriving in Paris at the time, she moved from the US to escape racial segregation. “I just couldn’t stand America, and I was one of the first coloured Americans to move to Paris,” she told the Guardian in 1974.

Baker in military uniform
Baker in military uniform. Photograph: Hi-Story/Alamy

“The simple fact to have a Black woman entering the Panthéon is historic,” the Black French scholar Pap Ndiaye, an expert on US minority rights movements, told the Associated Press. “When she arrived, she was first surprised like so many African Americans who settled in Paris at the same time ... at the absence of institutional racism. There was no segregation ... no lynching. [There was] the possibility to sit at a cafe and be served by a white waiter, the possibility to talk to white people, to [have a] romance with white people,” Ndiaye said.

“It does not mean that racism did not exist in France, but French racism has often been more subtle, not as brutal as the American forms of racism,” he added.

Baker was 19 when she arrived in Paris and became famous for her music hall appearances including dancing the Charleston at the Folies-Bergère cabaret hall wearing a skirt made of fake bananas. France was a colonial power and Baker’s routines are hailed now for the way she subverted colonial fantasies about Black women and the stereotypes they had to face.

With the rise of Nazism and the outbreak of the second world war, Baker was quick to join the anti-fascist fight. In 1938 she had already joined the group known today as Licra, a prominent antiracist league. From 1939, she worked for France’s counter-intelligence services against the Nazis, joining the resistance and notably collecting information from German officials she met at parties. As a spy for France’s wartime leader-in-exile, Gen Charles de Gaulle, she obtained information on the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and sent reports to London written in her music sheets in invisible ink. She had a pilot’s licence at a time when this was exceptional for women, and became a lieutenant in the French air force’s female auxiliary corps, gaining military decorations.

Josephine Baker in the south of France in 1970.
Josephine Baker in the south of France in 1970. Photograph: Jv Tc/AP

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

Later, as a civil rights activist, she was the only woman to speak at the 1963 March on Washington before Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech. She was wearing her French military uniform. In France, she also waged a fight against discrimination, adopting 12 children from different ethnic backgrounds and countries across the world to form what she called a “rainbow” family, who she raised at her chateau in the Dordogne region. She said she hoped their lives would show that “racial hatred is not natural. It’s an invention of man.”

Baker will be just the sixth woman to be honoured in the secular temple to the “great men” of the French Republic. She is also the sixth person of colour to be commemorated in the Panthéon, after five men. Félix Éboué, the governor general of French Equatorial Africa, entered in 1949; the author Alexandre Dumas, entered in 2002; and the poet and politician Aimé Césaire was celebrated there in 2011. Also commemorated in the Panthéon are: Toussaint Louverture, the 18th century military leader, who led a successful slave revolt and transformed the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, and Louis Delgrès, the leader of the movement in Guadeloupe to resist Napoleon’s reinstitution of slavery.

The ceremony was held on 30 November because that was the date Baker chose to take French nationality through marriage, on the day of her wedding. The process to gain French nationality has been made more difficult since then.

The ceremony – led by Macron, who chose to give Baker France’s highest honours after her supporters and families had petitioned for years – is seen as a move of political symbolism regarding France’s role as an inclusive society. The debate ahead of next spring’s presidential election has been dominated by hard-right rhetoric over national identity and immigration. The far-right TV pundit Éric Zemmour, who holds convictions for inciting racial hatred, has declared he will run for president to “save” France from being destroyed by immigration.

Macron’s office said it was a sign of the universal affection for Baker in France that there was complete political consensus around her honours.

Baker died from a brain haemorrhage days after a final smash-hit cabaret show in Paris celebrating her half-century on the stage. She had told a French TV interviewer: “I don’t like the word hatred … We weren’t put on Earth for that, more to understand and love each other.”

• This article was amended on 1 and 3 December 2021 to make clear that Aimé Césaire was not interred in the Panthéon, and to include Toussaint Louverture and Louis Delgrès as two other people of colour to have been commemorated there.


Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Dancer, singer … spy: France’s Panthéon to honour Josephine Baker
The performer will be the first Black woman to enter the mausoleum, in recognition of her wartime work

Jon Henleyin Paris

28, Nov, 2021 @2:09 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Josephine Baker: a timely addition to the Panthéon | Editorial
Editorial: President Macron’s decision to honour a consummate black artist and civil rights activist sends an important message


28, Nov, 2021 @6:25 PM

Article image
Thousands attend Simone Veil's burial in Paris Panthéon
Revered politician only fourth woman to be honoured in her own right with hero’s burial

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

01, Jul, 2018 @1:36 PM

Article image
Bordeaux city hall set on fire amid nationwide protests against French pension changes
Largely peaceful protests are marred by outbreaks of violence as unions claim 3.5 million turned out, while authorities put number at just over 1 million

Kim Willsher in Paris

23, Mar, 2023 @10:58 PM

Article image
Paris museum reopens with stories of frantic wartime exodus
Visitors may find echoes of early 1940s Europe in present-day fears and uncertainties

Jon Henley

13, Jun, 2020 @4:00 AM

Article image
Paris lockdown leaves streets stuck in 1942 for abandoned film set
Two locations frozen in period of Nazi occupation after coronavirus interrupts filming

Kim Willsher

30, Mar, 2020 @2:33 PM

Article image
Mélenchon fans in his bastion north of Paris weigh up their options
With the leftist out of the race, voters in Seine-Saint-Denis favour Macron over Le Pen, who is too extreme for many

Angelique Chrisafis in Villetaneuse

11, Apr, 2022 @6:41 PM

Article image
Anti-Islam rhetoric in French election risks ‘spiral of hatred’, says Paris mosque rector
Chems-eddine Hafiz says rightwing candidates are competing with each other to criticise Islam and Muslims

Angelique Chrisafisin Paris

27, Mar, 2022 @12:20 PM

Article image
French police begin clearing makeshift migrant camp in Paris
More than 1,000 people have been sleeping rough for months in squalid conditions

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

07, Nov, 2019 @8:14 AM

Article image
Macron: Paris protest 'battle scenes' could hurt France's image
Paris begins clean-up of damage at cost of up to £1.3m as 200 extra workers drafted in

Kim Willsher in Paris

26, Nov, 2018 @2:24 PM