In the politics of national identity, as with the politics of real estate, there are three cardinal rules: location, location, location. Few events better illustrate this truth than the current debate in France over whose earthly remains best belong in the basement of a hulking neo-Classical pile with a fissuring dome and bricked-up windows that looms over Paris — otherwise known as the Panthéon.
The Panthéon was not always what one wit called the “Académie Française of the dead.” Commissioned by King Louis XV to honor the patron saint of Paris, the church of Saint Génèvieve was completed just as the king’s son, Louis XVI, lost his throne and, eventually, his head to the revolution. Committed to the reign of reason and ancient Roman virtues, the republican revolutionaries named the edifice the Panthéon and dedicated it to the cult of the nation.
This was the opening kick in a century-long scrum that followed between Catholics and republicans, during which the Panthéon squirted like a football from one side to the other. Parisians followed the score on the pediment over the entrance: the celebrated phrase “Aux grands hommes, la patrie reconnaissante” (“To great men, a grateful homeland”) was twice removed, twice returned. Only in 1885 did the Republic score the deciding goal, when it orchestrated the burial of Victor Hugo and laid his massive remains in the building’s crypt.
Were all these great men truly great? Along with a multitude of Napoleonic marshals, there was, if only for a while, the bloody-minded revolutionary Jean-Paul Marat.
And is the nation truly grateful? Apart from Voltaire and Rousseau, Hugo and Jean Moulin, most French people could more easily identify the starting five of the Miami Heat than any five of the Panthéon’s remaining residents.
But no questions hover over the “men” part: All but one of the 71 great men are, indeed, men. Across the English Channel at Westminster Abbey, which helped inspire the Panthéon, there are more women enshrined whose names begin with “A,” including Jane Austen, than for the entire alphabet at the Panthéon. The only woman is Marie Curie, inhumed with her husband, Pierre, in 1995. (There is also the wife of the chemist Marcellin Berthelot, who refused to be buried apart from her.)
The “pantheonization” of Marie Curie was one of the last official acts of President François Mitterrand. Twenty years later, President François Hollande plans to pick up where his political mentor left off. Before the end of the year, he will name two individuals to be enshrined in the Panthéon. He also declared it was time for the Panthéon to “welcome women.”
Over the last few months, an official government Web site inviting citizens to suggest candidates, as well as one run by Osez le féminisme (Dare to Be Feminist), have gathered hundreds of candidates. Two names, Olympe de Gouges and Germaine Tillion, have appeared the most frequently.
A playwright and actress for whom the French Revolution was her most spectacular but also her shortest run, Olympe de Gouges authored the “Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.” Scorned by men like Marat, the document echoes and corrects the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen”: “Woman, awake: the tocsin of reason resounds through the whole universe: discover your rights!”
The moral courage and clarity of de Gouge’s manifesto was matched by her actions: An ardent revolutionary, she nevertheless volunteered to defend Louis XVI at his trial to show that women, like men, were capable of “heroism and generosity.” Appalled by the Terror, she resisted it until the very moment it took her life. Her death vindicated her affirmation that if women have the right to be guillotined, they should also have the right to speak their minds.
Germaine Tillion showed the same panache in the shadow of the gallows. One of the earliest to resist the Nazi occupation of France, Tillion was arrested and imprisoned in 1942.
Bundled off to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, she wrote mock operettas and gave lectures on the exterminatory logic of the camps. Though the genres differed, their aim was identical: to reveal the absurd for what it was, and thus give her fellow inmates the means to resist.
Tillion’s moral intelligence was no less striking in French Algeria. Having done her fieldwork in the country as a graduate student in ethnology, she returned in the 1950s as the blood-dimmed tide of civil war washed over the land.
Tillion was the rare French intellectual who, like Albert Camus, understood the reasons that drove both sides. And, like Camus, she risked her life to work for a truce that would spare the lives of civilians. Inevitably, perhaps, these efforts failed. But no less inevitable, at least for Tillion, was the truth that to see clearly is itself a moral act.
Will Mr. Hollande see his options with the same clarity? The president rightly prided himself on the creation of a government evenly balanced between women and men — an instance of gender parity that has become the law in French politics. But laws, as de Gouges and Tillion understood, can do only so much to change ways of thought. A symbolic gesture, sure and determined, can do so much more.
To choose one man and one woman to join the 71 “great men” — including one great woman — in the Panthéon would be a mockery of parity. Perhaps Mr. Hollande, who strikes many as too prudent and indecisive, will show he is capable of the same heroism and generosity as these two women and name them both?
Robert Zaretsky, a professor of history at the University of Houston, is the author of A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning.