Last week, the birthday celebration of France’s most famous playwright fell a bit flat when he was refused the one stage he had yet to conquer. It was not just any birthday: Few of us are remembered, much less fêted, at the age of 400. And it was not just any stage: Even fewer take their last bow at the Panthéon, an 18th-century mausoleum and monument in Paris where the honor of entombment is strictly reserved for the nation’s grands hommes (and, more recently, grandes femmes).
But Molière is not just any playwright, and his failure to be inducted into the Panthéon is not just any fait divers. During the 17th century, the Parisian-born and bred Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, who took the stage name Molière, reeled off an improbably long run of impossibly knee-slapping (and often heartbreaking) plays, ranging from Tartuffe, or the Imposter and The Misanthrope to The Miser and The Bourgeois Gentleman. His works have been so widely translated and performed that just as English is known as the “language of Shakespeare,” French is called “the language of Molière.” (So much so that, a few years ago, several regional governments in France imposed French as the principal language of communication at all public work sites. The law, contested by the European Union and struck down by the central government, was dubbed “la clause Molière.”)
What better résumé for admission into the Panthéon? This, at least, was the belief of Francis Huster, a well-known French stage, film, and TV actor and director who has long crusaded—in interviews, articles, and books—for Molière’s pantheonization. In 2019, Huster launched a petition to make the case for Molière’s remains to be moved from the Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris, to the Panthéon. For the world, Huster announced, Molière wrought the image it still has of France—namely, the nation’s “audacity and love of the truth.” Whether the world does, in fact, have that image of France, remains unclear. What was as clear as French, though, was the government’s response: Molière would not play at the Panthéon, at least any time soon.
Why was Molière denied entry? The reason, according to President Emmanuel Macron’s cultural adviser, Stéphane Bern, was simple: The Panthéon, he declared, was reserved for republicans. “Opening the Panthéon to the father of the French language,” Bern observed, “is a nice idea.” But nice is not enough. The Panthéon, Bern noted, seeming to state the obvious, honors “only those who have defended the republic. In other words, great men and women who come after the Revolution.”
This is an odd claim. The Panthéon was indeed a creation of the French Revolution. The building, commissioned by King Louis XV as a church honoring the patron saint of Paris, opened for business just as the king’s grandson Louis XVI lost his throne in 1792. Two years later, after Louis had also lost his head to the revolution, the representatives of the fledgling republic repossessed the edifice, rebaptized it as the Panthéon and rededicated it to the cult of the nation.
This marked the start of a centurylong foot rumble between reactionaries and republicans over possession of this prime piece of real estate. Parisians followed the fortunes of both sides by checking the status of the celebrated phrase over the entrance: “Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante” (“To great men, a grateful homeland”). It was removed in 1806 under Napoleon Bonaparte, restored a few decades later by King Louis-Philippe, and a few decades later was yet again removed by yet another Napoleon who had declared himself emperor. Only in 1885 did the Third Republic seal the deal when it orchestrated the burial of Victor Hugo and laid his massive remains in the building’s crypt.
But despite its historical status as a symbol of the tug of war between the two paradigms, the Panthéon does not, unlike our American halls of fame for baseball or rock ’n’ roll, have any such admissions criterion as Bern pointed to when explaining Molière’s exclusion. In fact, apart from being “grand,” or, for that matter, being an “homme”—it was only 25 years ago that the first woman, Marie Curie, was welcomed—there are no rules for admission to the Panthéon. Nor do the French people get a say. From the late 19th to mid-20th century, the power of “pantheonization” resided with the National Assembly. After 1958 and the advent of the Gaullist Fifth Republic, however, the process shifted to the president. In 1964, when the Resistance hero Jean Moulin was interred at the Panthéon, the occasion was as much about Charles de Gaulle, his towering figure silently officiating at the ceremony, as it was about Moulin.
More than half a century later, pantheonization remains, quite literally, a spectacular tool of self-advertisement for France’s head of state. The vision of a president addressing a coffin, draped in the French tricolor, placed by an honor guard outside the entrance, followed by the singing of “La Marseillaise,” cannot fail to impress. In 2018, Macron was the impresario for the pantheonization of the formidable Simone Veil, the government minister who had survived Auschwitz as a child and went on to fight for the legalization of abortion and closer ties between France and the European Union.
Three years later, Macron further strengthened his liberal credentials by again taking to the stage of the Panthéon. Indeed, in this instance, no word is more apt than “stage.” Though Josephine Baker’s name had first been floated in 2013 as a candidate for the honor, it was Macron, not his wan Socialist predecessor François Hollande, who welcomed the American-born entertainer and naturalized French citizen to the Panthéon last November. In a speech that climaxed a festive ceremony, an ebullient Macron declared, “Josephine Baker, you enter the Panthéon because while you were born American, deep down there was no one more French than you.”
For those observers who failed to grasp the political message of this event, one of Macron’s ministers, Élisabeth Moreno, made it explicit. “The president has issued this strong call to a nation tempted to turn inwards. More than anyone else, Baker embodies a pluralistic France, a nation devoted to liberty and unafraid of the mixing of races or the embrace of others.”
Macron’s timing for this show at the Panthéon was as deliberate as that chosen for Baker’s shows at the Folies Bergère. That very same day last fall, Éric Zemmour—the far-right pundit whose racist and nativist slurs have won him a following in France (as well as several court appearances)—announced he would compete in this spring’s presidential election. In a jaw-dropping video, he reeled off the names of those illustrious figures from the past who had brought glory to the nation: Hugo, Racine, La Fontaine, Voltaire, Chateaubriand, Descartes, Pascal, and, yes, Molière.
It did not take a Descartes to understand that les cards were almost entirely stacked with white males. Nor would it take a Molière to make a mockery of the video. Or, indeed, to make us laugh at the sudden rush of other figures on the French right who began to fall over one another in their calls for Molière to be next in line for the Panthéon. The conservative paper Le Figaro carried several such pleas, including one from Valérie Pécresse, the presidential candidate of the right-wing Les Républicains, who pointedly noted that Molière skewered “women’s oppression and religious sectarianism”—topics no less relevant in 21st-century France than 17th-century France.
When the government rejected the petitions, the leader of the hard-right faction of Les Républicains, Éric Ciotti, tweeted his outrage, accusing Macron of seeking to “deconstruct the history of France by preventing Molière to enter the Pantheon,” while the historian Éric Anceau, whose political sympathies lie with the nationalist right, tweeted that the “political polemic polluting this anniversary is indecent and undignified.”
Of course, their real focus, like Pécresse’s, is the fractious debate over national identity in France. In her choice of words, Pécresse targeted the growing influence of political Islamism in the nation’s underserved and overcrowded suburbs. Yet few French Muslims would feel exempted from her attack, especially when Pécresse vowed a few days later to “take the Kärcher [a German brand of power washer] out of the basement and clean out these neighborhoods and restore order”—an infamous turn of phrase first used by her mentor, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, when he was running for the office in 2007.
Last week, Kärcher released a press release, demanding that French politicians “immediately cease any use of the company’s name that misrepresents our brand and values.” If only the company had added a few lines from Molière’s Tartuffe, the last word on hypocrisy now, as it was then:
Man’s a strangely fashioned creature
Who seldom is content to follow Nature
But recklessly pursues his inclination
Beyond the narrow bounds of moderation.
Those words and his works will always remain with us, too powerful to ever need the Panthéon, and too truthful to ever be erased by a power washer.