Two Media Events: Josephine Baker and Eric Zemmour

30 November 2021

Today, Josephine Baker entered the Pantheon, and Éric Zemmour declared his candidacy for the presidency. The contrast between the two events could not have been greater. The Baker pantheonization was a grand state spectacle of the sort that the French do better than anyone else. President Macron used it to emphasize the values that he would like the French to believe are their own: universalism, anti-racism, anti-fascism, and not merely tolerance of the foreign but full-blooded acceptance. Josephine Baker was Black, American, and female; in her day some of the French reviled her music as barbarous and her performances as obscene. But here she is in the Pantheon, honored as une résistante de la première heure as well as immortalized in a dazzling spectacle that turned the dour and unloved Pantheon itself into a glowing symbol of the modernity that Macron would also like the French to believe is something they have embraced.

Meanwhile, Éric Zemmour announced his candidacy on YouTube with a video that emphasized division and intolerance. Its production values were anything but modern: a large old-fashioned microphone was presumably meant to evoke the news conferences of General de Gaulle, while Zemmour read monotonously in a darkened room from a text meant to persuade the French of the values he insists are theirs, namely, Pétainisme, intolerance, fearfulness, rejection of difference, and repudiation of modernity in favor of “the France your parents spoke of.”

There was cynicism in both presentations: in Macron’s, because he made use of Baker as a symbol of values that remain merely aspirational in his rhetoric and which he has done little to advance as president; and in Zemmour’s, because he refuses to acknowledge that even if France perpetually falls short of the values Macron chose to honor, the determination to honor rather than scoff at them, as Zemmour does, is malgré tout a defining feature of the authentic Grande Nation to which Zemmour attempted to pay his respects in his pointedly provocative closing, “Vive la République, et surtout, Vive la France!” Placing the Nation above the Republic places Zemmour’s reactionary calling card squarely on the table. He is running not as the candidate of the far right but rather of the nationalist and anti-modernist right, as the images accompanying his video made clear.

(P.S. I earlier posted a comment on French cynicism in which I badly misread a comment by Régis Debray, failing to appreciate its ironic intent. I took it down after Arun Kapil pointed out my error. My apologies.)


Photo Credits: The Panthéon by Loki0074 (CC BY-SA 4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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