PARIS — Under bright strobe lights and the strains of "Ascension, the Majesty of Christ," one more "great man" took his place this weekend in France's Pantheon of the Republic.
The majestic, domed Pantheon has long-since been eclipsed by the Eiffel tower as the symbol of France, at least to the 60 million tourists who visit Paris each year. But as a setting for dramatic celebrations of what it means to be French - and to be great in France - the Pantheon still has no rival.
Images of throngs following the coffin of writer Victor Hugo to the Pantheon in 1885 became an icon of France's Third Republic. Socialist President Franois Mitterrand's inaugural walk in 1981 to the Pantheon, single rose in hand, set the tone of his 14-year presidency. In choosing Andr Malraux to be the 72nd Frenchman so honored, conservative President Jacques Chirac is drawing on the same rich symbolism.
The ancient Romans dedicated their Pantheon to "all the gods." France's 1789 revolutionaries, who had just toppled their king, dedicated what had been a Roman Catholic church as a monument to their "great men."
The early choices of great men in France proved problematic. The great revolutionary orator Mirabeau was the first to be admitted, in April 1791. But two years later, he was denounced as a traitor and had to be "de-Pantheonized." Great man No. 2, Jean-Paul Marat, another eloquent of the revolution, also tumbled into political disgrace and was marshaled out of the Pantheon.
Since these Pantheonic mishaps, the French parliament voted a law saying that great men must wait 10 years after their deaths before being eligible for a slot in the Pantheon. The choice of Andre Malraux, 20 years to the day after his death, had not the slightest hint of controversy.
Malraux was a writer and an homme d'action (man of action). His early writings on anticolonialism, as well as his active participation in the fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War and the French Resistance won the respect of the French left. But he also marched with conservative supporters of then-President Charles De Gaulle when students and workers threatened to bring down the government in May 1968.
As France's first minister of culture, Malraux ordered massive cleanups of the Louvre and other public buildings. He also founded regional cultural centers, inventoried France's vast cultural patrimony, and safeguarded whole historic districts of Paris from development.
"Malraux had so many different facets to his life that it can be said that everyone can have his own Malraux," says Maryvonne de Saint Pulgent, director of patrimony for the Culture Ministry. "He showed the French that they have a magnificent patrimony: It shocked Parisians to discover that the Louvre was white."
Campaign to honor Malraux
The nighttime ceremony to honor Malraux was preceded by a nationwide poster campaign, a new stamp (with the writer's signature cigarette air-brushed out), hours of television documentaries, and hundreds of pages of commentary, which described the event as a "national consecration" and a "beatification."
"These are the moments when the nation unites around values," Mr. Chirac told his audience in a carefully crafted, made-for-television ceremony.
Sixty poster-sized photographs of Malraux and events related to his life were carried up the walk to the Pantheon and laid alongside the coffin, as giant images of Malraux were projected against the white face of the Pantheon, dramatically relit for the occasion.
'Ideas are ... to be lived'
Malraux was no stranger to the power of images. He choreographed the founding rallies of the Fifth Republic for Mr. de Gaulle, and as De Gaulle's culture minister, masterfully developed the techniques of collage and clips to make strong political statements. "Ideas are not made to be thought, but to be lived," he said, in an often-quoted remark.
He also had a strong sense of his own personal image, from the studied casual elegance of his attire, to the grandiloquent quality of his voice and gestures.
"France only honors people who can express themselves," says Ms. Saint Pulgent. "No one who does not express himself well in French has a chance."
Until recently, France has also only honored its great men. Nobel prize-winner Marie Curie, the discoverer of radium, was admitted to the Pantheon only last year, the first woman so honored.
One student watching rehearsals for the Saturday's event said that the poor representation of women in the Pantheon isn't intentional. "To be great, you have to have served the nation," says Parisian student Nicolas Viart. " 'Great men' doesn't just mean men. The H in Homme is capitalized [on the Pantheon] ... that means men and women."
"No it doesn't," disagreed a friend, Virginie Collomb. "They're all capital letters. Before the 20th century, [French] women didn't have the right to do anything. We didn't get the vote until 1945. That's a little late."
"In the future, there will be lots of great women," says fellow student Pierre Medecin, in a bid to compromise.
According to Pantheon officials, there are 230 places left for the great men and women of France. That should leave plenty of room for both.