Ah, politics is so grand in France. Imagine a conservative President in the United States embracing a leftist intellectual figure (or several) in order to burnish his own intellectual credentials and position himself as a worthy heir to the 20th Century intellectual tradition of France. I’m afraid we Americans go the other way, with “Democrats” debasing themselves by honoring a B-movie star champion with disputable intellectual credentials.
Given the Panthéon’s function as the final repose for France’s greatest heroes, it’s perhaps not surprising that efforts are now afoot to relocate the ashes of writer and philosopher Albert Camus to a site beneath the 18th century Paris building’s cupola. But rather than earning plaudits from intellectuals and ordinary French people alike, the move to honor the man some call France’s most influential postwar thinker is sparking controversy. Some pundits and historians say that Camus’ legacy is being exploited for political gain, while others argue that glorification of the philosopher by the French government would make a mockery of Camus’ deeply individualist convictions.
President Nicolas Sarkozy said last week that he wanted to add Camus to the giants of French history who are buried at the Panthéon — figures like Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Louis Pasteur — as a way of revering an author whose defense of the downtrodden and veneration of the individual over the oppressive forces of society earned him fame and respect around the globe. But the announcement outraged Camus’ son, Jean, who saw a motivation of a different sort — an attempt by Sarkozy to “requisition” the legacy of a ferociously independent thinker who has long been a hero of the intellectual left.
The debate goes on between Camus’ son, Jean, who says the ploy runs counter to everything his father stood for, and his daughter Catherine who could imagine her father in the Panthéon.
As for myself, as a long long time fan and student of Camus, I think anything that keeps the memory of this thinking and work alive in the minds of the French and foreigners is a good thing. If anything, those who read Camus would tend to be less “des moutons” in following the thinking of Sarkozy and others on the Right.