The Construction of French Cultural Identity in the Pantheon

By Alexandra Womack

Pantheon 1On May 27, 2015, a somber procession made its way to the Pantheon of Paris. It was bringing the coffins of four members of the French Resistance, including two women, Germaine Tillion and Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz–whose coffins were symbolic, as they contained dirt from their gravesites—and two men, Jean Zay and Pierre Brossolette. Although the whole world may not have been watching, it seemed that much of Paris was there in person. Our class was fortunate enough to also be in attendance, watching along with several thousand French men and women as history was made right before our eyes. Tillion and de Gaulle-Anthonioz, along with compatriots Zay and Brossolette, are not the only members of the Resistance now found in the cool darkness of the crypt—they join Jean Moulin, an administrator and a resistor during the German occupation of the country who died after his capture and torture by German officers. Originally laid to rest in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Moulin’s remains were transferred to the Pantheon in 1964. The interment of Tillion, de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Zay, and Brossolette was a celebration of the spirit of the Pantheon 2Resistance. These four heroes present new faces that promote the ideals of the motto “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” which dates from the French Revolution.

The presence of both Moulin and these four resistors gave all of us a unique chance to experience how cultural memory persists in France, and especially in places such as the Pantheon. The idea of these lieux de mémoire, or “places of memory,” is a foreign one to me; I can think of only a few places in the United States that act as a receptacle for our collective cultural memory in the same way as the Pantheon does for France. The French actively establish these “places of memory” and continue to maintain them through times of war and peace, abundance and strife. I was vividly reminded of this when I stepped into the building for the first time, three days after we had watched that stately procession. In Photo from Rosethe echoing space, it seemed that all aspects of French spirit shared space—Sainte Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, watched over us from great murals splashed across almost every wall; a marble statue that dominated the far wall of the building depicted intellectuals and soldiers alike seeking the attention of Marianne, who stood triumphant over the words Vivre Libre ou Mourir, “Live Free or Die.” The Pantheon of Paris lacks overzealous grandeur, despite its eclectic style; it is made beautiful not by its decorations but by the uniform message of cultural pride and remembrance that it presents. I was really moved by our visit to the Pantheon and it was an honor to be in the presence of the tombs of the people that France considers great enough to honor forever; of all the monuments and the places that we visited, the Pantheon was definitely one of the most moving.